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October sucks October 13, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in engineering, family, older son, personal, teaching, work.
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1 comment so far

I really am starting to dread October.  Being in the midst of it, I understand why.

October is when *everything* happens.  There’s no way to handle it but to keep going until the sheer exhaustion kicks in.  For me personally, I have NSF proposals due.  I am deep in the throes of teaching and grading.  I have reports due and conference papers to prepare.  My kids have all their various sports and other activities in full swing, meaning that we have activities going on 3 or 4 nights per week.

This year is definitely worse than last year because I’m still recovering from my medical fiasco last month, complete with lots of fun follow-up tests, and still am not able to engage in complete stress relief on a regular basis (i.e. running).  Further, the older son is going through the college application process, which is generally more time consuming than either of us really likes at this point.  I am hoping that these factors won’t be present in Octobers to come.

Half-way there, though.  Just a couple more weeks, and things will ease off.  One of the sports that both boys are in will be done until spring, NSF proposals will be over, most of the major grading I have will be done…and there will be leftover Halloween candy.  As long as someone saves me a peanut butter cup, I’ll be fine.6a0120a5580b8e970c013485bc4913970c

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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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.

Chores: a microcosm of a relationship April 16, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, family, feminism, food/cooking, homeschooling, societal commentary, work.
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It’s been a busy week.  I’ve been meaning to respond to a post about chores over at Wandering Scientist, but haven’t had a chance until now. Still, I’ve been parsing it in my head quite a bit.  Here’s the gist of it:

Anyway, here is the scenario: Consider two couples, Janet + Steve and Joan + Tom. Both are dual career couples with a couple of kids. Both are genuinely loving couples. Janet and Joan both consider themselves feminists, and if asked, both Steve and Tom would say that they consider their partners to be their equals, and that they think men and women in general are equal. However, Janet and Steve have an equitable home arrangement, while Joan and Tom do not, and Joan is unhappy about this. Joan and Tom argue about it with some frequency, but the issue never resolves between them, leaving Joan quite frustrated. Janet and Steve argue about the chores from time to time, too- after all, chores basically suck and most people would rather be doing something else- but for some reason, their arguments resolve the issue at hand, and Janet is pretty happy about her home arrangement.

What do you think? Why can’t Joan and Tom resolve the chores issue, but Janet and Steve can? Is the different dynamic within these two couples due to a difference between Janet and Joan or a difference between Steve and Tom? Or is it something external to the couples? Or are there multiple differences at work? What might they be? For instance, do you think the amount of money that each partner makes plays a role?

This post struck a chord with me because at one point I was Joan but now I’m Janet.  Many of you know that I was married before and that it didn’t end well.  Part of that is because I didn’t like being Joan any more.

As much as the scenario says that Joan is in a loving, equitable relationship with her husband, I honestly don’t think that can really exist if there isn’t a satisfactory division of labor within the household.  My experience tells me that husbands who do not step up to help around the house really view their wives as inferiors: the man’s view of this is very ego-driven.  The work that needs to be done is below him, so the wife should do it.  I say this because if it’s important for it to be done, then why aren’t they pitching in and helping with it?  The answer is that they feel it’s not important enough for them to spend their time on it because their time is worth more than their wives’.  And if their wives keep putting up with it, it’s also not really a big deal to them, right?

Unfortunately, wives will very often buy into this.  Husband complains about something not being clean, and obviously she’s supposed to take care of it.  I don’t know how many of my friends have complained about this exact scenario.  What she should say is, “If you want it clean, you have two arms and a brain: put them to work.”  Instead she excuses the behavior and comes up with some excuse why he can’t do it…yet resents him the whole time.  And there we see the lack of communication: if you want him to do it, don’t give him the silent treatment…tell him to do it!  (Although I can tell you that asking nicely is always important…no matter who is doing the asking.)

I think a lot of women put up with it because the alternative seems a lot scarier: leaving the husband and doing it all on your own.  (And having done that, I can say it’s pretty rough.)  I’m sure a lot of women think it’s worth putting up with because they don’t feel (maybe rightly so) that they can handle that amount of work (although I suspect a lot of them won’t find that it’s THAT much more work).  I think a lot of them also don’t see it as a problem with the relationship, so it’s not worth leaving him over.  I don’t agree with that view, however, because I see this particular issue as a reflection of how the whole relationship operates.

So my opinion is this: he sees his role as worth more than her being less overwhelmed, and she won’t express how important it is to her or is too insecure to confront him.  Quite possibly, this is exactly what they observed in relationships when they were younger.  They are emulating that because they aren’t sure how to do it any differently or haven’t gotten sick enough of it to try.

To me, this is just a reflection that making decisions about household work has nothing to do with loving the spouse and more to do with how you view gender roles.  Women do x while men do y.  If you think a man can’t do x, then you are viewing your spouse through a gendered lens which is likely to override things like honest communication and caring in a relationship.  How many times does the spouse who refuses to help with work make a point of saying how much they appreciate the spouse who is?  Or do they just complain about things that aren’t done?  Do they ever offer to help out when it’s apparent the spouse who is ‘supposed’ to do the work doesn’t get it done?  My observation is that they don’t often appreciate the contribution of the spouse who is supposed to do the work, or if they do, they seldom vocalize such appreciation…or offer to help.  This is what wives are supposed to do, and there is seldom the question asked, “But is this right for OUR relationship?”  And if that question isn’t being asked about the housework, what about the other roles that each has?

Getting specific, we have a fairly inequitable division of labor (strictly in terms of housework) in our house right now, and I am the beneficiary of it.  I wasn’t always the beneficiary.  When my husband was doing his PhD, I was helping out a lot more than I do now.  I had a summer off between my BS and MS, and the house was completely spotless.  On the other hand, when I was prepping for my orals, my husband was driving down the Minneapolis and spent the weekend taking care of cleaning and laundry.  He still does that right now as he’s ‘only’ doing a full-time job, while I’m working part-time, working on a dissertation, and dealing with partial homeschooling and general running around of offspring.  And we’ve both gotten so overwhelmed that we had to hire a cleaner as well as expecting the older boy to help around the house much more.  (And, to be perfectly honest, our house is still not in good shape.)  We do it this way because, in terms of who has time when, it makes sense.

He has and probably always will make more money than me.  Significantly more.  And he has never once held that over my head nor used that as an excuse for why he couldn’t do something.  I therefore think it has nothing to do with money, although people use that to justify their position.

If it’s an equitable relationship, both parties will look at what needs to be done and try to make sure that the labor is divided evenly so that no one is too overwhelmed.  My husband has asked me to do the laundry when he’s had to be gone.  Okay…it’s not ‘his job’, but he usually does it.  And if he can’t, then I need to.  Likewise, if I can’t run a kid to the doctor, he needs to do it, even if that means taking time from work.  In an equitable relationship, the work isn’t necessarily based on roles.  Very often, it switches.  The idea of the relationship is to work together to help each other out.  Admittedly, we definitely prefer to do certain things.  I do most of the cooking (at least if we’re not grilling something), and he does the dishes. I hate dishes, and he doesn’t like to cook.  But he will cook if I’m busy, and I will do the dishes if he’s busy.

The last comment I have to make is that some couples do have different standards: my husband needs things to be a lot more neat than I do.  That’s one that can be very hard to communicate sensitively, but it’s important to know when you should just let it go.  Maybe having kids has helped both of us to deal with that better.  When we weren’t as swamped as we were now, we sat down and discussed things that the other person did or did not do that drove us crazy in regard to cleaning.  (I remember he didn’t like that I would put clothes in first and pour soap directly on them.  I quit doing that, but now we have a front loader and it’s a moot point.)  However, we’ve just learned to appreciate when the other has done something (like the laundry) and not worry so much about specifics (it didn’t get hung up right away and so has wrinkles). We don’t always go about our cleaning the same way, but we’ve come to just be happy that it gets done at all rather than done the way we want it done.  If we do it ourselves, then we have the option to do it a specific way, but otherwise it’s just best to appreciate that someone is willing to pitch in and reduce your personal stress level.

Why I really work with my husband October 31, 2011

Posted by mareserinitatis in family, grad school, papers, research, work, younger son.
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This past week, I’ve been trying to get a paper ready to submit to a conference.  My husband is a co-author on the paper, so we spent a good chunk of the day cranking away at it.  I worked on the text while he fixed all the LaTeX issues we encountered.  This is my first time submitting a conference paper using this method, and I wasn’t acquainted with all the nuances of the IEEE style.  I guess I’ve lucked out because I either used Word (up until I finished my thesis) or let my co-authors deal with the issues that arose from LaTeX.  Either way, the paper was submitted at 5:30 p.m., a whole 5 1/2 hours before the deadline.

Then we came home.  He took the dog for a walk, and I went for a run.  He cooked dinner, I showered.  He took younger son trick-or-treating, I handed out candy while trying scarf down my dinner.  (Older son held back Gigadog so that she wouldn’t a) try to steal candy out of the dish and b) slobber all over the trick-or-treaters to show them how much she loves them.)  And now I can finally get to writing tomorrow’s lecture and grading while he gets the younger boy to bed.  Oh yeah…and Mike has work to do, too.

It’s a good thing I work with my spouse or I’d never get to see him.


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