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Waiting for the student to pop… November 3, 2016

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, teaching.
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I really enjoy teaching, but there are some aspects of it that frustrate me.  In particular, during my previous teaching stints, I often had a student who would be exceptionally rude or bothersome.  In one case, I had a student who sat there yelling at me, and I was thankful other people were present in my office at the time because I was worried he was going to get threatening and/or violent.  It happened when I was a TA and it happened when I was an instructor.  As an undergraduate TA in college physics labs, I remember one student who showed up to a make-up lab drunk.  It was not the first time I’d had incidents like this, so the chair of the department asked once why I always ended up with the crazy students.  After the episode with the yelling student, I realized that this student didn’t treat male professors or TAs the same way.  I am fairly convinced that a lot of the behaviors I see is based on the fact that I’m a female instructor and students feel free to take liberties with me that they never would with male instructors.  (And before you object, there’s a lot of research on this…)

I realized today that I’ve been holding my breathe, waiting to see who this semester’s one student will be.

It’s no one.  Not a single one.  All of my students are generally respectful and polite.  They don’t get on my nerves.  They’re nice kids.

Admittedly, this is also my first time teaching at a liberal arts college rather than a public university.  Second, I’m only teaching engineering students currently.  (It may be different teaching a general education class, but I won’t know until next semester.) It’s also a smaller group than I’ve taught before, so I may have numbers on my side.  What I’m noticing, though, is that I don’t seem to have students in the ‘extremes.’  I have really good students, but none so worked up that they’re freaking out if they’re not getting an A+ or arguing about every point they lose on each assignment.  Likewise, even the kids who are struggling in my class are still showing up and putting in a decent effort.  As I mentioned before, one of my biggest issues is how some (but not most of them) address me.  There have been a couple other bumps in the road, but none that have been really terrible.

Maybe this isn’t a surprise for those of you who’ve taught at a liberal arts school for a while, but it’s been rather amazing to me.  It’s made me wonder why I didn’t think about a school like this before.

Or maybe it’s all a fluke.  I certainly hope not, though.

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Academic freedom: “I’ve got no strings to hold me down” September 14, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in engineering, research, science.
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It’s no secret that I can’t stand the word “novel” when used to describe research.  (I talked about that here.)  Therefore, I was quite interested when I saw, in one of my newsfeeds, an article titled, “Academic spin: How to dodge & weave past research exaggeration.”  The post is about a discussion that biomedical journal editors at a conference had regarding some of the items that are being published and how to avoid hype and conflict of interest.  In general, the topic was interesting, but I had to pause at this paragraph:

Later, we heard from Serina Stratton that out of 313 trials studied, 36 required sponsor/manufacturer approval for text or publication and 6 had gag orders. Leading to some inevitable questions: why aren’t all academic institutions protecting researchers and trial participants from industry restrictions on academic freedom – and why aren’t potential participants being warned about this before they agree to be in a trial?

I’m afraid this may sound a bit judgmental, but I felt like the question about academic institutions protecting researchers and participants was a bit naive.

It is my observation that universities are very much gearing operations toward a business model and are less concerned about education.  (I’m not passing judgement, by the way…just stating my observation.)  Bringing in research money is a huge component of creating a successful university in the business model, and this is reinforced by things like the Carnegie rankings.  The level of research effort is one of those criterion for the rankings, and that is measured not in hours or publications but in research dollars.  (The methodology for these rankings is here.)  Being a RU/VH (research university, very high) is something nearly every university aspires to.  (It was a huge deal when my own university joined the ranks…despite the fact that no one outside the university seemed to realize it.)

But how does one become a tier 1 school when federal budgets are shrinking?  You have to fill the gap somewhere, and a lot of places do that by doing contract research for industry.  Given the choice between research funding and the prestige that goes with it versus academic freedom, it seems pretty obvious that the whole academic freedom issue is rather inconvenient.  The rankings don’t look at academic freedom, they’re looking at research expenditures.  Obviously, given the choice, the university is going to catapult whatever prevents receiving funding.

If you’re doing contract research for industry, there is almost always some limitation on academic freedom.  Companies are not going to fund research that doesn’t generate proprietary information.  Heck, a lot of them won’t fund research if they think the research might leak out and make them look bad.  Trade secrets are the norm in industry, and the choice researchers make when they work with industry is the loss of academic freedom.  This is a choice that is being pushed by the universities in general, however, because, like most businesses, decisions revolve around the bottom line.  Because of that, researchers understand that tenure, and for those on soft money, continuing employment, is heavily dependent on funding.  There are few researchers who are going to turn their nose up at a major funding source, even if that funding comes with some pretty serious strings attached.

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.

The Brain Drain March 22, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, Fargo, grad school, research, science, societal commentary.
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Yesterday, I was getting into my car when I noticed something on my windshield.

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My neighbor had seen the article about me in yesterday’s paper and left me a message about it.  In fact, it hit three of major newspapers in the state. (If you care to read it, one copy is located here.)

When I was asked by the public relations person at NDSU if she could feature my research as part of an effort to promote the supercomputing facilities on campus, I was certainly glad to do so.  First, from a simply pragmatic point of view, it’s not a good idea to bite the hand that feeds you.  (Although, to be honest, they have a lot of other projects they could’ve featured.)  Second, and more important in my mind, is that this type of thing counters some of the negative attitude about the state universities in the western part of the state.

People from out of state (probably the 4 of my 5 readers) are probably not aware that there is a bit of a divide in state politics, and it can be roughly framed by drawing a vertical line down the center of the state.  The eastern part of the state has the major universities and sees the benefits of having them.  The western part of the state thinks the universities are sucking all of their hard-earned money, and worse yet – children, away from them.

Growing up in the 80s and 90s all I heard about was the ‘brain drain’ that the state was suffering: all of those bright, hard-working, born-in-North-Dakota kids were being educated at a low cost and then leaving the state.  The people in the western part of the state seemed to think we just ought not to spend so much money educating them.  I don’t think they understood that the likely result of that would not be to prevent brain drain but to accelerate it as those students would end up leaving for colleges out of state.  On the other hand, the eastern part of the state was asking for more and more money to fund already seriously underfunded universities which were teaching a lot more kids than they could realistically accommodate.  And we won’t even talk about research.  The universities are supposed to be there to serve the students from the state…what does research have to do with anything?

I was one of those kids that left straight out to go to college, and I really had no intention of returning.  I wanted to do research, and I knew that coming out of high school.  I knew that because I’d gotten involved in research through a state-sponsored program at NDSU as a high school student, and I also knew that I likely couldn’t do what I wanted here.  And why should I, when I could go someplace better?

If you fast forward to about 2000 (when I came back to return to school), there were some significant changes happening.  Great Plains software was bought out by Microsoft, making it the second largest Microsoft campus in the world.  There were companies in town doing engineering.  There was a way to stay in North Dakota with a technical degree.  And about that same time, NDSU started to make some aggressive moves to increase the size and reputation of its campus.

In the past ten years (even before the oil boom in the western part of the state), this significantly slowed the population loss the state was suffering.  However, the western part of the state was still shrinking, and this was probably aggravating the divide.  The eastern part of the state is right, though, IMO.  If you want to keep people from leaving, you need to find a way to create jobs, and not just any jobs: they have to be jobs that bright, educated people will want to do.  Universities are very often centers of creativity and entrepreneurship, and so bringing in more money to the universities will likely do a lot to create jobs and businesses.  Bright, educated people will start businesses to hire those that may not necessarily have the advanced degrees but are still hard workers.  The state is finally starting to see that, and they’re also using some of the money from the oil and gas taxes to create incentives for businesses to operate here.

Going back to the article, I was excited to do this as I see this as a way to communicate to the skeptics that the universities are good for the state.  Here is a project that I would likely have to do somewhere else if it weren’t for the fact that we have the facilities here and they are easily accessible.  Part of the reason I think my research was featured is not only the coolness factor, but the fact that I’m a native of the state and one of the people who, ostensibly, you don’t want leaving for a better job elsewhere.  So yes, the universities are doing something to keep people here, even if not in the western part of the state.  (On the other hand, it sounds like they have more people there now than they really know what to do with, which is another story altogether.)

My only disappointment in all this is that my hometown paper, the Bismarck Tribune, didn’t run the story.  I can’t help but wonder if that is a result of the fact that the divide still obviously exists.

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