I just finished up the first “week” of the hybrid class. The real first week was taken up with orienting the students to the class and introducing the format (as I detailed here). Since then, I have been seeing each of my sections for the first time with real work to do. I divided the class up so that each student only meets once a week, and, since Labor Day was last Monday, we just finished up the first round of classes today.
For this week, I had the students do the usual stuff – access my lectures and read the textbook. However, the activity in class centered around the students watching a video and then having a discussion in class. As this is the first half of American history, we concentrated in on the Spanish conquest and the motivations for coming to the New World. For that purpose, I chose a video that looks at the transformations that occurred on both sides of the exchange between cultures. I would have loved to have had the students watch the documentary Guns, Germs, and Steel, but that is not available for free and is not available streaming for my students. Even more, I would have loved to have them read the book, but that is even more impossible at this stage. So, I settled on one offered free and streaming through pbs called When Worlds Collide. It is not bad, although the narrator does get on my nerves a bit.
The actual class day went like this:
- Troubleshooting/check in on progress
- Student introductions (I waited for the smaller groups for this)
- Questions about lecture/textbook content and Uncle Tom’s Cabin
- Discussion on the documentary
The discussion went well in all four classes. Nothing spectacular, as expected for the first time out. And, as expected, only around a third of the students actively participated. Since the grade is almost completely participation based, I’m going to assume that some more might be participating the next time out. I also, since it was the first time out with this discussion model, let the students largely direct the discussion. I tried to ask as few questions as I could and let them go where they wanted. I started each discussion with the “What did you think? What did you learn new?” set of questions, and, for the most part, that’s the most guidance I needed to do. Because of the other things, we only had about 30-40 minutes for the discussions, but that seemed to work pretty well. What was interesting is how different the four different discussions were. Even though the material was the same, each class went in different directions. We did cover many of the same topics, but, instead of a lecture that dictates exactly what each student will hear, this more free-ranging approach allowed the students to concentrate in on what they found interesting.
Another very interesting aspect of this approach was the number of times that I was asked a question. When lecturing, I rarely ever get stopped and asked questions by my students. The very mode of a lecture can be fairly prohibitive of that. With this format, though, I was asked multiple questions by the students. While some were asking about things they did not understand, the majority of the questions were more along the lines of asking for further information about what they were interested in. In that way, I feel that the discussion model was a success.
The drawback that is quite apparent at this point is that only about a third of students are participating. The rest just sit there. This class cannot work with only a third participation, and grades for the rest are going to be quite low otherwise. I am going to see how this next set of assignments work, as it will involve some in-class group work. We shall see what happens then.
Here’s a breakdown of the articles on education I’ve come across recently.
The core of her argument is here: “But the real disruption comes when you stop measuring academic accomplishment in terms of seat time and hours logged, and start measuring it by competency. As all employers know, the average BA doesn’t certify that the degree-holder actually knows anything. It merely certifies that she had the perseverance to pass the required number of courses.” She is projecting a time when everything is going to be overturned. Where it’s not just the point where online courses take the place of face-to-face courses, but where the whole model of how we teach gets overturned. Who knows if she is right that this is going to happen anytime soon or in our lifetime, as revolutions are predicted all the time, but the argument is certainly compelling. Alternatives to the 4-year, sit-down degree have been growing, and at some point, it is easy to see us reaching a point at some time where we have fewer and fewer “traditional” students. Even now, I know that we could fill as many online classes as we could offer at my community college. My history ones always fill in a day or two after they open, and we could keep going. Of course, then there becomes the question of who is going to take the traditional classes if we just have more and more online classes? Right now, we limit the alternatives, forcing most students to take a traditional, face-to-face class. And, right now, there is a distinct population that wants that. However, at some point we are going to stop being able to keep that gate closed, and students will start going to places that offer more flexibility. The other thing that occurs to me on reading the article is that even our most “non-traditional” offering at my community college, the online course, is still strapped into the traditional course calendar. It starts and ends at the same time, and the guidelines we are given have the students not able to work ahead but instead completing the course like a traditional course. Breaking those boundaries will become necessary I think. We should be moving to classes that are self-paced, classes that work outside of a semester schedule, classes that can be completed in 4-, 8-, 12-, 16-, 20-, 24-weeks or whatever. Classes that start at odd times and classes that end at odd times. I can see the day, at some point, where we have rolling enrollment and completion on a student’s schedule. The student registers and starts, finishing up when he or she finishes, with assignments graded as they come in. We create the content, monitor the course, are available for consultation, feedback, and assessment. In other words, the day where a lot more places look like Western Governors University. And, the scary thing is, I don’t think that’s a bad thing.
And, if we are going to move to this more self-paced model, then we need to have better tools to check in on our students as they are doing their work. So, this article’s title certainly seems to go along with that. This is a quite interesting use of Google Docs. He details how to create a spreadsheet to keep track of where students are and what they are doing. As it is shared among all students, everyone can then see whatever common dimension you are looking for. In his case, he was having common reading and having the students post up before each class on how far they had read. That way he knew roughly where all students were, including a class average that gave a decent idea of how far most students were. I could see this used in a lot of different cases for common assignments in a traditional class or with a self-paced class, you have to post up to that in order to keep track of each individual student’s progress as they make their way through a self-paced course. I could see something like this really working well at tracking students on those types of assignments that they do outside of class that don’t have specific end points/assessments (like textbook reading and the like). That gives you another way to check progress rather than just waiting on them to complete a chapter test. The only thing this relies on is the students accurately and honestly recording their progress. I do think this would matter less if you were thinking about a self-paced course than one where it would be embarrassing for a student to show up to class not having read the required reading. With a self-paced course, this tool could also serve to remind the students at regular points that they should be working on some piece of the course.
This article was a bit shorter and lighter on substance than I thought when I posted it up to Evernote to read later. Still, it does cover some of these same ideas that something needs to change, as I think many of us can agree. In this case, Harvard is dealing with the problem that “researchers already know what works to promote deeper thinking and learning and it’s not sitting in lectures, taking tests, and then moving on to the next topic. Instead, students need the opportunity to make meaning of what they’ve learned and apply it to real-world challenges.” I can certainly agree with that. What I don’t buy is the last section, which implicitly tells us to wait for Harvard to make its decision on how we should change things, and then we can all rely on their expertise and change afterwards. I’m not waiting for them, and I don’t think the field is either.
I’ll close today with this one, which goes back to a concern I raised in the first article. “Many students simply want to be lectured to. When I taught the MATLAB course inverted, all of the students were initially uncomfortable with the course design, some vocally so.” Challenging the way things have always been done is going to lead to resistance. The student in a lecture class is in a passive role. Little is asked of that student, and they can just go through and do the minimum and do fine. Show up, take a few notes, and we will consider you to be learning. I hear that all the time from my colleagues (not going to name any names here), that the students they have won’t even take notes in class. I wonder two things about this.
First, is taking notes the thing we are seeing as the highest level of learning? I hear that more than anything else, that if you aren’t lecturing and the students aren’t taking notes, then learning isn’t happening. I go the route where I give all of my students my lecture notes ahead of time, which they are welcome to bring to class or use a laptop/tablet to access in class. I have had a number of students comment positively about that, saying that it allows them to actually pay attention to what is said in class rather than furiously trying to take notes on it. I’m not sure when it happened, but we seem to have elevated taking notes on a heard lecture to the highest form of academic achievement. Yet, I have plenty of students who don’t take any notes who do well and students who take a lot of notes who struggle.
Second, listening to a lecture and taking notes on it is the most passive of activities for a student. It might seem active to watch the pencils flying out there in class, but, at its heart, this exchange requires very little of the student beyond paying attention. There are not a lot of jobs out there where the ability to listen to 75-minute lectures and take notes about them is going to be a regular part of what they are asked to do. Yet, that seems to me to be the primary skill that we ask of the students. And while it is, why would a student want to change it. All they have to be is a listener and a note-taker.
Of course changing out of the model is going to breed resistance. If you told me that instead of sitting and listening to a lecture, I had to actively participate, presenting my opinions, engaging the material, and thinking and doing, I would have resisted as well. I can’t say it a lot better than this author did: “What I think this illustrates is that there is a cultural expectation about how college classes ought to go that is very hard to change. Many students — and faculty! — in higher education are sold on what I called the renters’ model, which is basically transactional. I pay my money and inhabit this space while you take care of my needs, and when I’m done I’ll move on. The inverted classroom is one style of teaching that insists on ownership. There will be some friction when two fundamental conceptions of class time are in such disagreement with each other, no matter how much sense it might make in your content area.” It is something I worry about on a regular basis about making change to my class. The question is, do we let expectations hold us back or do we move forward anyway and try to change those expectations?
No links and articles today. Just some thinking.
I guess the thing on my mind more than anything else is how radical of a change is acceptable and/or appropriate if I am to do a total redesign of my class next semester. I’d like to jump in whole hog and change everything. However, there’s the question of how to do it and if it would be accepted by the students and my fellow faculty members if I am doing something completely different.
So, here’s a basic outline of what I would like to do for my hybrid classes: I would like to remove lecture from the class completely. They will still have access to my lecture materials, as they do now, ie. through the lecture notes, PowerPoints, and audio podcasts that they have at the moment. However, they would be material that the students would be responsible for working on outside of class, much like the textbook reading is now. I would like to move beyond the idea that I am presenting them with the material. There are two big reasons why I am unsatisfied with the lecture model:
- It puts me as an infallible authority on the material. The students hear me lecture and write it down. They then parrot those same things back to me on the assessments for the class, as if my interpretation and the things I cover were the only thing that was important out of all of the class. The relationship of me as the deliverer of information as if from on high is uncomfortable to me, and it just breeds the idea of the students as passive learners.
- It covers things the students should have had before. If I am echoing what the students were supposed to have learned in high school, then what am I doing. Yes, I might go into more depth. Yes, I might talk about different things with different emphases. Yet, at the heart, I am delivering a historical narrative that should be no different from what they have had before. The idea that a history class should be a chronological accounting of what has happened in history seems ridiculous to me. If that is what I have trained for and what I get paid for, then this is an easy job. Anybody can get up there and reread a textbook to them. But, what is that really teaching them?
So, what then takes the place of lecture, as that’s currently what I use 80% of my class time for? I would like to divide my class of 45 in half, with half meeting on one day a week and the other half meeting on the other day. Then I would like to have each day have a topic. The students would come in prepared with having covered the basic information that is necessary and prepared to discuss something in more depth. We would do history by actually talking about events, people, ideas, and such in history. I would not give them the narrative and have that stand in as the whole class. Instead, they would drive the class, through the topics that we would discuss. The topics would not be comprehensive in nature, and they would not purport to tell the students everything that happened.
This certainly falls into the “flipping the classroom” model, turning the standard class on its head. The thing I worry is that it is too radical. Could our community college students handle it? Would they come prepared? Would they do it? What resources would I need? Do I have time to recreate my class? Is this too ambitious?
An example of what I could do one day comes from what I am currently calling an in-class activity in my class. The subject is the Triangle Fire in New York in 1911. The students are responsible for watching a 2-hour video and reading some short biographies of the people involved. We will then discuss the event in class, talking about what happened, why it happened, what the result was, and how it fits into the history we have been studying.