Rethinking my digital ban

I’ve long been a diehard “laptop ban” advocate. Basing this decision first on intuition and later Startup Stock Photoson empirical evidence, it was rarely an issue beyond the initial student grumbling. Among hundreds of student evaluations, a very small handful (less than 5) mentioned it as an issue. Although I included the caveat of “if this is problem for you, please talk to me,” no one ever did. Case closed, or so I thought.

As I’m getting ready for a new term, I read with interest this piece in the Chronicle on starting the semester. Basically, I read the whole piece, nodding along until he got to his critique of the laptop ban. I didn’t think too much of it at first; I have always stated that I’m willing to make accommodations, just no student ever asked. But then I read the piece from Digital Pedagogy Lab he linked to and I’m already singing a different tune.
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Pokepolisci

pokemon-1543353_960_720I’d love to be able to tell you about how you can teach political science using nothing more than Pokemon Go. I’d love it, because it would give some semblance of meaning to the past fortnight, the hours spent hunting down Pokemon and wondering whether I’ll even catch a Jynx.

Sadly, I’m not able to. Not yet.

For those who’ve been living under a rock of late, Pokemon Go is the latest incarnation of the long-running series of games from the Nintendo stable, wherein one attempts to catch a variety of monsters – the eponymous Pokemon. Continue reading

Critical Reading with CritiqueIt: A Guest Post from Colin Brown

Our latest guest post is from Colin M. Brown, PhD, a Lecturer in Comparative Politics at Harvard University.  He shares with us a great tool for teaching students how to critically engage with texts in a meaningful way.

Active learning has shown effectiveness in teaching concepts, but what about in instructing college students how to read effectively? One unavoidable problem in political science remains teaching students how to read actual works of social science. We expose students to original research and “great books” in our field as a way of simultaneously teaching the course content and also teaching how to read a particular style of social science argument.

This is well and good, and like writing, reading is a skill where students will learn mostly by doing. But are there things we can do to assist the process of learning how to read analytically?

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How innovative are we?

Me, back in my punk phase.
Me, back in my punk phase.

Around these parts, we tend to make a lot of innovation. We write posts about cool new things we do, partly because we like telling people about such stuff, partly because we think you’d like to such stuff too.

Of course, we’re also very sensitive and certainly don’t fetishise innovation: it’s got limits and there’s a time and a place for it all. We’re not going to make you do something you don’t want to, or need to.

But there’s another question that sits to one side in all of this: just how innovative are we in any case?

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Holiday Greetings

Some holiday cheer as the calendar year winds down:

Should I fix you some sandwiches?
Should I fix you some sandwiches?

The College of Saint Rose has seen its enrollment decline by 15 percent since 2008. In an attempt to balance its budget, it has eliminated twenty-three academic programs. More than ten percent of its full-time faculty are slated for termination. Programs scheduled for closure include bachelor’s degrees in philosophy, religious studies, sociology, geology, Spanish, and economics.

Burlington College continues to teeter on the edge of abyss, for reasons I discussed in August and December of 2014. Burlington’s full-time undergraduate enrollment shrank by one-third from fall 2014 to fall 2015, to 123 students. The college has announced a $2,000 reduction in tuition for the next academic year. In reality the college is just cutting its discount rate in the hopes that a lower sticker price will appeal to a larger number of potential students. Unfortunately these are the same people who have the greatest need for financial aid.

Meanwhile Arizona State University (ASU) and edX have reported a few of the results from the inaugural year of their MOOC-based Global Freshman Academy. Of the 34,000+ people who registered for the Academy’s three MOOCs, only 323 are now eligible for earning academic credit. Some people might say that a completion rate of less than one percent makes the initiative a massive failure. But it’s highly doubtful that the majority of the people who registered for the MOOCs did so to obtain academic credit. It’s also unlikely that the MOOC participants on average were as motivated as the typical student on campus. It could even be the case that many of those who registered for the MOOCs were not as academically prepared for college-level courses as the average ASU first-year student.

As I’ve written previously, I see MOOCs as an extremely low-cost, low-risk, and convenient alternative to much of what happens in many university classrooms. ASU and edX are starting small, gathering data, and iterating. Soon they will be offering a full year’s worth of college courses at a price that is less than half of what Burlington College and College of Saint Rose are charging.

Defending Powerpoint: The Instructor, Not the Tool, Makes the Lesson

The Guardian’s Andrew Smith recently published a piece in their Technology Blog lamenting the overuse of PowerPoint (PPT) -based lectures in the college classroom, citing as faults both the boredom it causes as well as the critical thinking it supposedly inhibits. I agree that PPT can lead to lectures with such attributes, but as with so many teaching methods, the tool itself should not be blamed for the faults of a lesson.

Powerpoint: the death of critical thinking?

To be as anecdotal as the author, I too have heard terrible, boring lectures grounded in pretty fonts, three or four bullet points, and droning voices that belong in a sleep-aid app. But I’ve also attended PPT lectures that were brilliant and thought provoking, and been put to sleep by a fair share of lectures with no visual aids.

A good lecture has more to do with the skill of the presenter than the tool itself. A dynamic presenter can create an interesting, informative, and provoking lecture using PPT, Prezi, or any other form of presentation software, while the same tool in the hands of a less skilled teacher can of course lead to confusion, boredom, and passivity. The chalk/white board (itself a piece of technology) can be just as misused–Many instructors have limited abilities at what I’ve always called ‘boardcraft’, the art of using the board effectively to clearly communicate with students. A set of prepared notes using the board or no technology at all, can lead to an amazing, provocative lecture–or not. It is the skill and training of the instructor, and how they use their instructional tools, rather than the tools themselves that lead to desirable results in a classroom setting. For example, the ALPS team strongly supports simulations and games as methods of teaching students. The most important part of using a game for learning, though, is the debriefing process that occurs after the activity has ended, which requires the instructor to be able to pull the experiences of the students from them and help them think through how the content lessons are exemplified or challenged by the gameplay.

The teaching tool does not determine the interest level or critical nature of the lesson.

This can be done with prepared PPT slides with provocative questions, or the whiteboard, or online discussion boards, or via old school classroom discussion. The tool is far less important than the instructor’s ability to tie personal experience in the game to the overall lesson.

Another assertion in the article that I find troubling is the implied trade off between using PPT and the board. Yes, PPT is linear in its approach. But there is nothing stopping an instructor from going off-script to follow up on a point made by a student. Depending on the technology set up in your classroom, it can be pretty easy to switch between the two. One of the classrooms I teach in has the projector on a separate wall from the board, so I often use both. In another, the projector blocks the board–but it is the work of a moment to ‘Pic-Mute’ the projector and pull the screen up so I can use the board.

There are other methods of ensuring that PPT does not make your lessons boring and uncritical. Consider avoiding bullet points entirely and instead using images, clips, and questions as the touch points for your lesson, allowing the content for that slide to be more dynamically presented and discussed. Alternatively, you can always include slides at the end that are not necessarily part of the main lesson, but which you can jump to very easily if in the course of the lecture, a relevant point comes up. For example, I will frequently drop polling data in the end of my slides on related topics that students sometimes bring up (say, opinions on various social issues for a lecture on Civil Liberties). This gives me options–I can jump to those slides if they come up, but I’m not required to do so if they do not. Jumping in and out of PPT itself is also very easy, and I will do it readily if I suddenly recall a news clip, video, or primary source that I did not include in the main lecture. No one has to be tied to the pre-prepared slides unless they let themselves be constrained by it.

Clearly, I am a fan of PPT, but like any tool, it has its limitations in the classroom. My philosophy is that we have a toolbox full of methods, of which PPT is one, and we should use the tool that helps us craft the best lesson for a given piece of content. It is our job as instructors to create lessons that are not boring and which provoke critical thinking; the blame for a class that fails to meet that mark falls squarely on us, not on PowerPoint.

A Quick Exercise on Confirmation Bias and Hypothesis Testing

This neat exercise featured on the New York Times takes a few seconds to play and includes a neat set of examples of how confirmation bias impacts government policy and corporate America.

Basically, you are presented with 3 numbers in a sequence, and asked to guess the rule that governs the sequence. You can enter in any 3 numbers you like, and the system will tell you whether or not your sequence follows the rule or not. When you are ready to guess, you enter it in but you receive no second chances. Apparently 78% of people make a guess without getting a single ‘no’–and most get the rule wrong.

The example in the NY Times is ‘2, 4, 8’. A number of possible rules could come to mind–must contain multiples of 2, or even numbers, or that the number doubles the one before it. The actually rule in this case is even simpler: the number must be larger than the one before it, meaning that ‘4, 8, 16’ works, but so does ‘1, 10, 3593’.

They don’t mention it in the article, but this exercise can adapted to teach hypothesis testing. Used in class, you can put the sequence on the board and have students suggest other sequences, which you then judge as either following or not following the rule. They have to use this information to come up with the right answer.

If this sounds familiar, it may be because one of the very first entries on this blog was about the board game Zendo, which does precisely this, only with physical pieces rather than numbers. I still use Zendo on day 1 of my methods class, and find it a really useful tool for teaching a variety of methodological skills. This numerical version is a great, easy activity to pull out for a quick fix on helping students with their logical thinking.