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Some thoughts (like, a million or so) on instructional technologies July 10, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, family, gifted, grad school, homeschooling, math, older son, research, science, societal commentary, teaching, younger son.
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3 comments

I’ve been having a discussion with Massimo about his post on instructional technology.  Despite what I’ve already said, I have a lot more thoughts, so it’s just easier to write it out as a blog post (or maybe more than one).

I think I’m going to start by defining some things about how classrooms operate online.  First, you have what I would call the Udacity (or maybe Khan Academy) model.  This is a model where you basically watch a lecture online, complete and submit homework assignments online, and discuss things via discussion boards (or Blackboard or Moodle).  The second model is completely computerized – all the lessons are presented via a reading or lecture, and the bulk of the course is completing problems.  Both my sons have used the former method to learn math.  One uses EPGY and the other uses Aleks.  On top of these choices for online education, there are in-class courses, mixed (some components online and others in a classroom or lab), and earning credit by exam, such as AP, CLEP, or DANTE exams.

If you look at these options from the point of view of a university, some of these options for educating students are going to be more appealing than others.  Credit by exam, of course, is going to be the least appealing.  The university gets a fee for administering the exam but pretty much nothing else.  Many universities simply will not accept them, but there are a lot of them (mostly non-elite schools) that will.

The other one that is bad from a university POV is the completely computerized model.  It works incredibly well for things like math and some sciences because it basically moves working from a textbook to working on the computer.  Also, most of the programs are adaptive in that, if you’re having difficulty with a concept, it will first give you additional problems.  If this doesn’t seem to be helping, it will pull you off that topic and put you on to another, waiting a while before it allows you to revisit the difficult topic.  (I believe K12 uses a completely computerized model for all courses, but I have no experience with it and can’t say how well it works for language or social science-type courses.)  In a classroom where one person is a facilitator supervising several students working on the course, this is a very cost effective method, and a lot of elementary and secondary schools are beginning to utilize it.  When doing it for online education, however, it represents an expense that is more, generally speaking, than hiring an individual to teach a class.  The majority of tuition money would be spent on licensing (as there are already several good ones out there) or development of a program (which may not compete well with pre-existing products) and not going into university coffers.  Also, why offer something that everyone else can offer, too?  That’s certainly not going to set you apart in terms of attracting students.  Therefore, universities are more likely to want to have in-class courses, mixed, or online courses that utilize the Udacity model.

In the discussion Massimo’s final comment was this:

I was not aware that there is now solid research showing that online education is superior to classroom teaching for the vast majority of students (I assume that at Stanford they no longer offer classroom-based math courses — it would make no sense to have continued, given that online courses work better). I am surprised that classroom-based education still exists at all, and that so many of us still believe that it is better — but I am sure society will soon abandon this useless relic of a time past, and embrace the more effective online education.

Here’s the problem: there are decades of research showing that online education is, at the very least, equally effective for most students and significantly better for other students.  So why aren’t we using it more?  I could also state that lectures have been been shown to be one of the poorest forms of teaching known to man, so why do we continue to use it so much?  Turns out, there’s an answer.  In this journal called Science (you may have heard of it), they ask exactly this question about interactive teaching and inquiry-based classrooms:

Given the widespread agreement, it may seem surprising that change has not progressed rapidly nor been driven by the research universities as a collective force. Instead, reform has been initiated by a few pioneers, while many other scientists have actively resisted changing their teaching. So why do outstanding scientists who demand rigorous proof for scientific assertions in their research continue to use and, indeed defend on the basis of intuition alone, teaching methods that are not the most effective? Many scientists are still unaware of the data and analyses that demonstrate the effiectiveness of active learning techniques. Others may distrust the data because they see scientists who have flourished in the current educational system. Still others feel intimidated by the challenge of learning new teaching methods or may fear that identification as teachers will reduce their credibility as researchers.

I’d like to note that this was published in 2004, almost a decade ago.  Here we are, 8 years later, and from my observation, active teaching strategies are seldom used in most classrooms.

I think it’s safe to say that this is the same set of problems faced with online education.  I would also add that people who learn well in the classroom have a hard time understanding that others may learn as well or better using a different medium.  Or there’s just simply the problem that they’re afraid they’re going to lose their jobs.  (I only see this as likely in the scenario colleges would somehow try to implement completely computerized online classes…but you can see my comments on that above.)

One major issue that I see is how few college instructors really understand how people learn.  They learned well through a lecture style course, and so they assume that it is obviously the best way to learn.  I personally think that every instructor ought to have at least one course in educational neuroscience so that they understand how lousy lectures really are as well as so that they may communicate to their students how they ought to try to approach learning and studying.  (This was a significant part of the class I taught to incoming engineering students last year, but not all places have a course where you can cover topics like that.)  I do realize that such a course is not available at most universities, but I don’t think that should prevent one from accessing this knowledge.  I would suggest that one who has never taken such a course invest some time in the course materials available online (are you feeling the irony?) at Harvard.  Those opposed to online education can read the book Brain Rules, which was used as the text for the course.  (Of course, if you are opposed to online education, I hope you’re reading an actual paperback rather than downloading it onto your iPad.)

Massimo also says:

I am not disputing that online education may be the only/best option for some — but, from it being a valid option for some, to it replacing classroom teaching foreveryone, there is a bit of a leap, don’t you think ?

No, I don’t think so.  There are two reasons why I think this.  First, teachers who embrace online learning are more likely to embrace other technology that is likely to enhance learning.  Generally, this will enhance learning beyond anything that is likely to occur in a lecture-based class that occurs in a classroom.  Despite what some people may say, research shows (read Brain Rules) that learning which is multisensory (like watching YouTube clips) is better for you than sitting in a lecture.  Images will convey more information than talking, and video (or seeing something in action) conveys more information than straight images.  Sitting in a lab is likely the best environment of all.  Online learning also is likely to be able to keep people’s attention.  (If you read Brain Rules, you’ll come to find that most people can only focus for about ten minutes, and then they need something to restimulate their attention.)

Second, I think accessibility is a huge issue in education.  I have one parent who found it incredibly difficult to finish a degree (and she never did) because she had a choice between quitting her job to take classes at the local university, which were only offered during the day, and taking night classes at an expensive private college.  I have a sibling who is currently finishing a degree in accounting online because she lives two hours from a university and works 4-10s.  How is she supposed to finish a degree at a school in those circumstances?  There are a lot of people in similar situations who would otherwise be unable to earn a degree.  In fact, my husband earned his MS through Penn State through a Navy program where he took some classes at the university and some through a video link…well over a decade ago.  He said he would’ve been unlikely to pursue a degree if he’d had to drive across Puget Sound (he was in the Seattle area at the time) evenings for two or three years.

Okay, so obviously I know a lot of people who have benefitted from these sorts of things.  So why do I think it could work for everyone?  I think this is a basic principle behind Universal Design for Learning: the notion is that if you design a curriculum that helps people with difficulties and disabilities, you’re going to help many other people as well.  Our brains work on a continuum, and while not everyone may have learning disabilities, they may operate in a region where learning may be difficult, if not disabling, when it’s presented a certain way.  Therefore, if you design materials to teach someone who is hearing impaired, for instance, you’ll likely help a lot of people who may have difficulty with ingesting information through auditory means in general.  (Lest you think this must be a small part of the population, take into consideration that I was working toward a master’s degree before I found out that I likely have some sort of auditory processing disorder…and only because my son was diagnosed with one.  Smart people can often do well even with learning disabilities because they often have other ways to compensate…but it can be frustrating for them, nonetheless.  I wrote a post on this topic a while ago.)

So what does this have to do with online learning?  I can give a concrete example: my older son is ADHD and had auditory processing disorder.  He really struggles sitting in a normal classroom and, for most of his life, his teachers  told me he couldn’t possibly be gifted because of his classroom performance despite the fact that I had documented evidence to the contrary.  We took him out of the classroom, and he started earning college-level credits through CLEP exams beginning his freshman year of high school…working independently, primarily through reading.  As I mentioned above, he does all of his math through Aleks.  He does extremely well on pretty much any type of standardizes examination.  I can easily see a kid like him, even with less problems, having huge difficulties sitting in a college classroom but being able to handle an online class very easily in no small part because the method of presentation.  So why can’t this help someone who is less distractable?

Take it a step further.  If online learning is ideal for people who have jobs and families and can work in the evenings but not get to classes, why can’t it also work for students living in dorms or even at home?  Maybe some of them find that they concentrate best at night and it is preferable to sitting in a large, crowded, warm, boring classroom at 8 a.m.  (And yes, people do function on different clocks.)  Aren’t you benefitting the student by allowing them to work at their peak time?

I’m not saying everyone will take advantage of this, but I think it ought to be an option for many people.  Some people really thrive on personal interaction and keeping them out of a classroom would inhibit them from learning.  Some people don’t.  The ideal situation is where students have choices and options.

I think the final thing I have to say on this topic is that the real problem, in my mind, is that teachers see themselves as essential to the learning process.  Really, the one thing I’ve learned going through graduate school and homeschooling my kids is that teachers are more often an impediment.  The university functions to teach students, and yet, in many cases, students are quite capable of learning the materials on their own.  That’s really the reason behind homework: you learn it far better by doing it than by sitting and listening to someone talk about it.  In reality, students are still learning on their own.  The role of the university is to focus the effort, speed up the process, and assess performance.  Students are not necessarily learning anything from their classes that they cannot learn on their own…and in fact, they may be learning it less deeply than if they did it on their own.

I find this ironic given that the other aspect of a university is research: people are expected to learn new things and create new knowledge all the time.  If learning really only happens meaningfully in a classroom, then research couldn’t exist.  I can’t wrap my head around the fact that researchers who learn things on their own all the time will turn around and claim that undergraduates somehow lack that ability.

My conclusion, therefore, is that online education should seriously be considered as an alternative whenever available.   I think it democratizes education and makes a better environment for learning for a significant portion of students.  The reason we haven’t shifted to these models is mostly because professors, on the whole, are unwilling to consider that it should be done another way and are uninformed about the benefits.

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Self-regulated learning September 6, 2011

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, engineering, teaching.
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This week, I tried to cram a whole bunch of stuff into one lecture.  I was worried about it being too short, but I ended up cutting some of the details to make it fit into my 50 minute slot.

As a complete aside, I’m amazed that I have managed to write two lectures and have them fit into a 50 minute slot.  No, I didn’t run through them beforehand to make sure they were the right length.  I don’t imagine I’ll be this lucky so often.

The class had four segments.

First, I talked about what self-regulated learning is, i.e. that students should set goals for their learning and continually be evaluating and learning from their lecture, homework, and exam experiences.  I tried to make the discussion very high level. (For more information on self-regulated learning, you can take a look at the presentation by Marsha Lovett (pdf) or the Carleton geoscience pages on teaching metacognition.)  I then said we were going to practice this, so I covered a bit about active listening practices.  I made a point of showing them a plot contained in the Lovett presentation showing how badly students will overestimate, in most cases, their comprehension of the information.

The next segment of the lecture came from the book Brain Rules: I went over how we learn physiologically, and impediments to learning (stress, lack of sleep, multitasking/distractions).  The reason I did this is because it serves as a basis for later recommendations on studying.  For instance, Brain Rules talks about how it is important to repeat exposure to information within an hour lest that information be lost.  When talking to students about studying, this provides a reason for reviewing notes as quickly as possible after class.

I then had the students break into groups and try to come up with the themes for the previous segment.  Most groups got the section on how the brain learns and the impediments to learning.  A couple groups threw in active learning, and several groups broke out some of the subsections for the different parts of the talk.  We went over what each group thought were the themes and then I discussed what I thought were the themes so that they’d have some feedback.

The last part of the talk was about notetaking.  Some of the information on this was taken from the book Learning Outside the Lines (which I bought for the older boy and then immediately stole from him), mixed in with some of the information from Brain Rules.  I told them that notetaking has three parts: going over information before class (and preparing questions), the actual act of notetaking in class (and several variations of layout/methods, which was the largest part of the discussion), and then reviewing the notes after class, taking time to evaluating meaning.

Their assignment for next week is to try a couple different methods of notetaking and then evaluate them.  Again, this goes back to being a self-regulating learner: they need to try new things and then evaluate them, implementing changes if a particular method doesn’t work.

When I was writing up the lecture, it didn’t hang together too well, and I realized that some of it was that I was focusing on the individual sets of information I wanted to get across.  Once I realized I needed to shoot for themes, it went together much better and followed a logical progression.

And only two students slept through the lecture this morning.  We’ll see how the rest of the week goes.

Homeschooling and Teaching with Brain Rules May 3, 2011

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, homeschooling, older son, research, science, teaching.
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2 comments

As many of you know, the older boy is on a partial homeschooling arrangement.  One of the plans this year was to cover US History and then have him take the relevant CLEP exams.  (What can I say – I’m a cheapskate, and doing this this way is a lot cheaper than having him take classes at the university.)

We started out the year with three books – a CLEP review book, Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, and a Patriot’s History of the United States.  My thought was that 1) he would see a point/counterpoint in the interpretation of US history by reading the various books, and 2) there would be a decent amount of repetition.

I have definitely been vindicated on the first point.  The older boy has really enjoyed reading the People’s and Patriot’s History books because of the fact that they’re rather politically charged.  But when it came time to do a practice exam, no dice.  He barely passed the exam.

I was nervous about shelling out the money for an exam only to have him fail it (although I imagine that will happen at some point or another), so I tried to think of some way to help.  I decided to order the History of the United States video from the Teaching Company.  (Before you pass out at the price tag, keep in mind that these go on sale at least once a year and I didn’t pay that much.)  The older boy took to them instantly, and it was probably one of the few times this year I didn’t have to nag him about getting his homework done.  After getting through the first part, he took another practice exam and earned an A equivalent.

I have read many times that the textbook for a course is where most students get their information.  I also have argued with people about this point because, while I use them as references, I’ve only been minimally successful and garnering much information from them.  When I have been successful, it’s because I’ve done things like compiled vocabulary lists or extensively used the practice problems…not because I’ve simply read them.  On the other hand, I’m very surprised by the older boy’s jump in test score.

I shouldn’t have been.  I recently listened to the book Brain Rules.  I heard about the book after looking into a class on educational neuropsychology that was using the book for some of its readings.  After reading it, I can tell you that I strongly suggest that anyone who functions in any sort of teaching capacity read or listen to it.  It has a lot of very good information that educators should, but often don’t, know.

When listening to the chapter of stimulating the senses, I found the explanation for the big jump in scores.  It turns out, according to the book, that one of the best ways to get people to remember things is to stimulate multiple senses.  Reading by itself is problematic because there is a significant amount of decoding that goes into translating the written word.  However, watching a presentation where someone is talking and that speaking is accompanied by visuals, especially if they are animated visuals, will drastically increase memory of the subject matter.

This is undoubtedly the case with my son’s score discrepancies: watching the videos, which include pictures as well as someone speaking, did a lot to boost his memory of the topic matter.  (Granted, this was history and not science or math, where I expect a somewhat significant amount of additional practice would be required.)

As a homeschooling parent, this means that I am definitely going to be on the lookout for more high quality videos.  Fortunately, I can also find things through places like MIT OpenCourseWare and iTunes U.  And this means I will also keep this mind if/when I ever get back into a classroom.

Because I really don’t have time for a proper post March 29, 2011

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, engineerblogs.org, Fargo, pets, teaching.
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I have lots of thoughts, but no time and am in need of sleep. Therefore, enjoy the following bullet points.

• Head over to EngineerBlogs.org and check out the theme for the week: networking.

• During my commute and exercise, I’ve been listening to the book Brain Rules. I honestly believe everyone who is a teacher of any age group ought to read this book. In particular, some of you know that we recently moved the younger boy to a new school. A major problem that we were trying to make clear is that removing recess from his schedule if he failed to complete an assignment was NOT a good way to handle the problem and may, in fact, be counter productive. The book vindicates my stance on this. I will probably write out more once I’ve finished the book.

• I discovered today that it is possible to be productive and have several meetings in a single day. Color me stunned.

• Three more days before Gigadog arrives.

• I’ve discovered that playing violin soon after one gets braces is really not pleasant. My teeth aren’t too happy with my right now.

• The Red River hit flood stage today. Wish us luck. I’m drawing up plans for an ark. If you’d like to see current levels and predictions, you can look here: http://bit.ly/f9qR1q

• The schedule is more hectic than usual this week, but normal posting should return around the weekend. I’ll try to post something, but if not, you know what’s going on. Thanks for hanging in there.

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