Thoughts on Education – 2/8/2012 – Articles, including a crazy one from 9gag

I’ve saved up a couple of days worth of information on education here.  I can’t say there’s a strong theme here, although several do have to do with games in education, which continues to be something that interests me.  Here are some of the highlights of what I’ve been reading:

Khan Academy: It’s Different This Time

I’ve read a lot about the Khan Academy, and the overall direction of the coverage is generally quite positive.  It is generally talked about as revolutionary to the current state of education.  This is a rare piece that offers criticism.  I have only explored Khan Academy a bit myself, mostly looking at topics covered without really engaging the material.  Thus, I’m really relying mostly on what I have read elsewhere about the Khan Academy more than my personal experience.  Also, as a note, the Khan Academy has a lot more math and science than it does humanities, so it usually gets evaluated in terms of these offerings.  Still, this is a good counterpoint:  “Khan Academy’s style of teaching is identical to what students have seen — and rejected — for generations: do this, then do this, then do this. Today, thousands of American students are performing poorly in math, in large part because they weren’t taught it correctly in the first place.”  From what I have seen, there is definitely a point here.  As the article says, the real problem is that the students are taught that all they need to do is memorize how to complete the task and not understand why completing it is important to know.  The article also goes into a bit on skepticism of “new” breakthroughs that I can take or leave.  It also notes the general positive reviews regarding “engagement” among students and the gamification aspects.  Yet, I think that first critique is the most cogent and relevant.  It is along the lines of what I have been worried about here.  Is it more important in history to memorize what happened or to understand why what happened is important?  I would certainly argue the latter, but I can’t speak for math in general.  I’d love to hear from someone about the math side of things to see if this is a good argument or not.

Despite Focus on Data, Standards for Diploma May Still Lack Rigor

I do have to be honest here that I was linked to this article from another (Reeding and Riting That XPlane Why Stoodents Are Not College Ready), which is obviously a more eye-catching title.  However, it quickly got into minutia about the New York area that seemed irrelevant here.  So, I went to the original article.  It discusses the problems with a single test being presented for all students as what they need to pass.  As the writer argues, “If the standard is set too high, so many will fail — including children with special education needs and students for whom English is a second language — that there will be a public outcry.  But if the standard is set too low, the result is a diploma that has little meaning.”  What this means, in his estimation is that the tests have erred on the latter side, with multiple examples given of passing essays that use barely passable English.  His basic conclusion is that testing-based evaluations have failed to increase the actual abilities of the students and just result in watered down tests to get students through who have not improved.  The relevance for me is that these are the students (in TX rather than NY, of course) that I get.  Somebody made an interesting comment to me two years ago that we are now seeing the students who have been raised through most of their formative years in a testing-focused school environment before college.  I certainly see the limitations and largely agree with the article.  Of course, the problem here is that it offers no actual solutions, outside of stopping doing what we’re doing now.  From my perspective, I need to know how to deal with these students when they get to me.

Are you ready for a revolution in education?

I know, a 9gag link is not exactly scholarly, but then you have to get ideas where they come from, and I do search the linking sites, especially reddit.  I don’t know if I can recommend that people get on reddit, as it has a lot of junk and is mostly amusing.  However, I have found the education, teaching, and higher education sub-reddits to be a great source for articles.  Honestly, I get about 60% of my links from there.  This one is an example of something completely off the wall, namely the reorganization of a class around experience points (XP)  such as you would earn in an actual game.  It sets up a system where students earn XP for completing tasks.  They can then use that XP to level up in the class while also using the points to gain advantages (like extra time on a test).  It’s interesting and got my mind working.  I was halfway through creating a way to use XP in my own classes before I even realized it.  So, the idea is compelling.  Realistic?  I have no idea, but certainly compelling.

Using Role Play Simulations to Promote Active Learning

Along the same lines of gaming came this article.  It talks about bringing in concepts from role-playing to substitute for the traditional lecture and offers three pieces of advice.  The first and last are good, and if you’re interested in role-playing projects, then you should definitely check them out.  The middle one is the one that caught my eye, because it encapsulates one of my biggest fears in making dramatic changes.  The author notes that you have to assure the students that doing something different is ok and that they will be assessed fairly.  Here’s the relevant part:  “Most students are used to their teachers feeding them the information, so this will be a new experience for them.  Addressing student anxieties about this way of learning is particularly important in disciplines or universities where the lecture-essay-exam model is the most common. I’ve found it helps to provide students with examples of work produced by students in previous courses.  You also want to be clear in communicating your expectations. Write out the rules and requirements, and enforce them so the process is predictable. Make sure the teams are small enough that everyone participates and spot check to see that everyone actually does what they are supposed to – the free-rider problem isn’t going to go away. Also, take into account that, depending on their personality or culture of origin, some students may need extra encouragement to participate.”  I will definitely take those ideas in mind when working on recreating my course.

7 Strategies to Make Your Online Teaching Better

  1. Let the technology help you, not hinder you – expect things to go wrong when you do new things.  Don’t get flustered and help the students through the rough parts.  The author recommends making tutorial videos and the like, but I think the biggest thing, which I have found to be true, is expect to be troubleshooting through your first week or two.  This is something I certainly need to remember, as I get frustrated easily and often take it out on students through overly-sarcastic responses.
  2. Anticipate the difficulties – know that online students will be distracted, will get bored, will not spend the time you think is adequate, and all together approach the class in a way that you do not expect.  The author suggests providing much “scaffolding” to keep students from getting lost and keep them moving in the right direction.
  3. Incorporate synchronous opportunities – online office hours and the ability of students to get a hold of you when they are likely to be doing the work and encountering problems.  In other words, not in normal, traditional office hours.
  4. Give extra feedback. Then give more – I was going to write that I think I do this poorly, but then I read the advice here and see that I do all of it.  I guess it’s the nature of online classes, that I always feel like I need to do more since I don’t see them in person.  Yet, I guess I do ok here.  I just always feel that I need to be providing more personal feedback to each student.  But, as I teach 90 students online right now (a little less than half my load), and will have that probably go up even more next year, I’m not sure how realistic extensive individual feedback is.  Still, I do need to think about this one.
  5. Prove you are not a dog – make sure the students know you are a real person with real issues, real problems, real experiences, and such.  Don’t be a robotic responder.  Have some personality, and the students will appreciate it.
  6. Provide support for self-regulation – encourage the students to take charge of their pace of work and requirements each week.  We can only hold their hands so much and must rely on them to get things in on time.  As I see it, you can only be so flexible, again with 90 students, there’s not a ton of leeway on getting things done and providing individual exceptions.
  7. Encourage play – While I have thought of this one, this is well put and something I certainly fail at.  I will leave it with a quotation here:  “Online courses often have a reputation of being dry and boring: lots of reading and lots of lectures.  Adding in other elements can make all the difference in the world: add pictures when you can, consider design principles in your CMS, record your lectures in front of a small, live audience (I once recorded a weekly email from my campsite, replete with kids shouting in the background and a fly buzzing around my head).  The point is, recognize both how you want to teach the information and how it might be received. I try really hard not to be boring.”  I fear my class is boring.  I get compliments organization and the like, but I think it is fundamentally not all that interesting of a course.  This is something I should really work on.

I’m going to close here, as I’m approaching 1750 words.  I have one more article on my list, but this is probably enough for a single post.  Give me any feedback that you have.  I’d love to hear what you have to say, and I’d love to hear what you have to say.


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About Scott Williams

I am an educator, community-college instructor, thinker, husband, parent of four, student of life, player of video games, voracious reader, restless wanderer, and all-around guy.

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