Managing Transitions

After my summer hiatus, I find myself back in the office, working through the pile of things that has accumulated on my desk in my absence. At one level, it’s a classic case of work-as-usual, in that there’s nothing that I haven’t had to deal with before at some point; but it’s also a key transition point.

In the past month, Surrey has switched over to its new VLE, SurreyLearn, after an extensive purchasing and implementation period. The switch to a completely new platform was predicated on the need for a step-change in functionality and robustness: my various responsibilities in learning & teaching have meant that I’ve been involved in the process from an early stage and I’m aware of the potential that the new system holds.

However, I now find myself asking how I am going to use this new system. On the one hand, I know that I can now do things that were impossible before, notably in integrating a number of other systems and networks into a single space. On the other, I am very dubious about innovating for innovation’s sake. One of the biggest barriers that I encounter when talking to colleagues across the sector is the fear that having an interest in L&T means having to constantly change one’s practice to accommodate the ‘latest thinking’. This concern is a real one, especially in situations where institutions are ambivalent about the place of teaching in their provision. Even here – where that does not apply – there are enough other areas of change that change-for-change’s-sake is not appropriate.

The upshot is that I’m going to wait for now. As the year progresses, I’m going to see when I can add real value-added via the new VLE, both from my own practice and from talking with others. This latter point is an essential one, in my view: Teaching can be a very personal activity, and often the most useful advice comes not from ‘the literature’ but from conversations with colleagues, especially those who have worked through the practicalities of a situation: educational theory is all well and good, but sometimes you just need to have a walk-through.

All of which leads me to a plug for internet resource on simulations that I was working on earlier this summer.  Thanks to the HEA, I was able to push on with a big part of the content. It’s meant to be a practical guide to using simulations and games (and draws on several elements from other ALPS contributors) and I’m very happy to talk about any of it with people and to receive more content.

The Word Problem Problem

Recently I was faced with the question of whether to use some of the same books in two different courses. Isn’t each course supposed to have distinctive content? But what about the unity of knowledge? My internal debate eventually led me to conclude that when it comes to curriculum design, most university faculty — at least at the undergraduate level — are like failed restaurateurs. Everyone who likes cooking in the kitchen thinks they can run a restaurant. Every faculty member thinks designing a curriculum is the same as constructing a syllabus.

We often preach about the importance of critical thinking and claim that our courses and curricula help develop this skill. Yet students are often unable to transfer analytical  reasoning techniques from one context to another. The classic example of this is the word problem from elementary school:

  • A Japanese train with seven cars travels between Osaka and Tokyo at a constant speed of 200 km/hour. How long does the trip take for someone riding in the second car?
  • A Japanese train with four cars travels between Osaka and Tokyo at a constant speed of 200 km/hour and someone accidentally drops a book from the window of the second car. How long does the book take to hit the ground?

Students who have learned how to solve the first problem will frequently fail to solve the second one, even though they are essentially identical.* Why does this happen?

As pointed out by the cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham, the human mind is lazy — it is predisposed to look for familiar patterns, and when it thinks it has found one, its decision-making ability is often negatively influenced. To get around this habit, a person must learn to differentiate between a problem’s superficial aspects and what Willingham calls its deep structure:

When one is very familiar with a problem’s deep-structure, knowledge about how to solve it transfers well. That familiarity can come from long-term, repeated experience with one problem, or with various manifestations of one type of problem (i.e., many problems that have different surface structures, but the same deep structure).

How does this relate to the readings I assign in my courses? If I assign the same text in multiple courses, students get repeated exposure to the same problem, and their ability to solve it is reinforced, or I can use the text to demonstrate how problems with the same deep structure can manifest themselves differently in different environments. Students also get more training in the knowledge that they should look for a problem’s deep structure instead of erroneously focusing on surface aspects (like the number of cars in a train or the train being in Japan).

How does this relate to curriculum design? Many curricula follow a checklist paradigm — students must take one Western civilization history course, two math courses, one religious studies course, ten courses in a major, etc. We like to claim that problem-solving techniques learned in an economics class can be applied to situations presented in an anthropology class, and vice versa, but the checklist sends the opposite message — that knowledge resides in discrete boxes. The way we design our curricula makes it less likely that students will ever learn how to see past surface structure and become effective problem-solvers.

*The solution to both requires knowing distance; in the former, the distance between Osaka and Tokyo, and in the latter between the window and the ground.

Teaching Failure

Everyone should check out this fascinating piece on Inside Higher Ed, about how to help students learn from failure.  The instructor reserves 5% of the final grade for ‘quality of failure’, assessed by a reflective essay at the end of the course.  Students are encouraged throughout the course to try out new ideas and to fail spectacularly, and to use those moments as learning tools for the entire class.

I love this idea.  Like many of us, I struggle with getting students who feel like they don’t know anything to participate in class.  My way around it has been to find ways to teach political concepts through individual experiences, pop culture, movies, and books and to create a comfort zone for discussion and to help students see the connections of politics to their real lives.  This is easier in some courses (like methods) than others.  For content-heavy courses, we still have to deal with the actual content, and getting students to feel comfortable engaging with ideas they do not quite understand can be rough.  Creating an environment where failure is institutionalized and rewarded sounds like a great way to overcome some of these problems.

The new semester started yesterday and in 25 minutes my first methods class meets.  I am sorely tempted to reserve part of their participation grade for this ‘quality of failure’ idea.  Its certainly a risk.  But as the author of the piece says, modeling failure ourselves through our teaching choices can be rewarding to the students, so perhaps this is a risk that will work out regardless of how it goes…

When Technology Almost Gets The Upper Hand

After two weeks, two laptops, one iPad, one iMac, four webcams, five microphones, a motley collection of light fixtures, and various pieces of software, I’ve finally put together a combination of equipment that allows me to produce video lectures of sufficient quality.

We commonly believe that technology is supposed to support teaching and learning, but often the reality is the reverse. And I’m not just talking about hardware and software. While reviewing the work of others and making my own error-filled practice runs, I discovered why the typical YouTube video runs between four and five minutes: long videos, especially the talking head kind, are boring. I’m a university professor, which means I’m geeky enough to actually enjoy a well-crafted lecture. But my attention span seriously dwindles when I’m experiencing the two dimensional version. Joseph Nye has some interesting ideas, but watching him continuously expound upon soft power on my laptop screen for over 49 minutes is  impossible.

If I can’t do it, I doubt my students can either, which means my video lectures need to be in the two to five minute range. Saying what you need to say within that short time span requires distilling your normal lecture down to its most essential information — spare sentence structure, only one or two illustrative examples, no amusing anecdotes. I found that I was stripping out everything except what students absolutely need to know, and perhaps that is a good thing. If they get just a skeleton of ideas from my online lectures, they might have a better sense of what they should focus on when they are in class.

Reading a Journal Article

Another skill-building exercise related to information literacy that I will be using in my upcoming thesis writing course is “How to Read a Journal Article.” Students will need to locate several peer-reviewed journal articles on their thesis topics and complete worksheets that contain the following questions:

  • What is the complete bibliographic citation for the article?
  • What is the hypothesis or research question, and where is it located in the article?
  • How does the author use other sources to engage in a dialogue with scholars who have written on the same or a related topic?
  • Do any of the other sources referred to in the article look like they will be useful for your research? If so, which ones?
  • What is the dependent variable in the argument being presented?
  • How has the author operationalized the dependent variable?
  • What are the independent variables in the argument being presented?
  • How has the author operationalized the independent variables?
  • What kinds of data were collected and analyzed? What methods were used?
  • What are the conclusions in relation to the hypothesis?
  • What message is the author trying to get across about her or his work in relations to that of others?

I developed this worksheet assignment after realizing that many students simply do not know how arguments in scholarly literature are structured. It also gets to Amanda’s point about students defaulting to a Google search after they’ve been told to find and use only high-quality information. While Google Scholar might turn up some peer-review journal articles that relate to whatever topics students are researching, they need to be able to understand the arguments in those articles, which means understanding how the arguments are organized. Most students won’t practice these skills unless they are required to do so.

Fingerprints and Breadcrumbs

As a follow-up to Amanda’s post about information illiteracy:

This fall I am teaching a thesis seminar course for the first time. I have no idea what kind of research skills these students possess, and I’m a big advocate of undergraduates finding and using peer-reviewed journal literature, so I designed an at-home exercise to test their abilities. The exercise’s questions are of the “In the third paragraph on page 37 of their 2007 article in Eurasia Quarterly, Strunk and White state that natural gas production in Central Asia . . .” variety. Each successive question contains less bibliographic information that points to the correct answer. Eventually only an author’s last name and a few key words are presented.  Students get three tries on the exercise, but only the high score is recorded.

I’m hoping the exercise introduces students to certain search techniques that they don’t already know. I also want them to understand how important it is that their sources be cited by complete bibliographic information.

Online Sources in Papers: Why Allow them?

Is there any good reason to allow our students to use online sources in their papers?  I’m not talking about the online depositories for news articles, or using databases to find books, journals, and articles online, but the kinds of sites that come up in a google search on a given topic–the blogs, random pages of questionable value, and of course, wikipedia and other online encyclopedias.  I’m trying to come up with a good reason not to simply ban internet searches and randomly found websites in papers, and I’m failing.
The problem is that our students generally have pretty poor information literacy skills.  They don’t know how to find sources or how to evaluate them for quality, and even after teaching them these things, they often find it hard to break the habit of simply doing a google search when they need information.  And there are many sites out there that are far worse than wikipedia– is one of the most insidious.

Banning the use of google as a search-engine or general internet sites would force students to learn and use the proper mediums for finding information.  This can be done by creating a subject page via the college library that lists appropriate sources (such as polling websites, archives, government web pages, etc) and links to databases, or by creating an individual one and handing it out to students.  In my experience, they are often very grateful to have a list of sites to work with.  You can take this further and ban all internet sites, forcing students to use physical copies of books and journals, if you like.  The goal is the same: jar students out of the habit of using Google as a shortcut for real research.

None of my classes have projects this semester that involve research papers, so I won’t have a chance to try this out in the fall.  I will in the spring though, for my environmental and energy security class.  I’m not sure of the best way to conduct the ‘ban’ though: fail any papers with non-approved sources?  fail, but give students the chance to earn full credit if they rewrite it using appropriate sources? Or just give a large penalty, like a full letter grade reduction?

Regardless, i think it is appropriate to give students an assignment early on that helps them understand why some sources are more legitimate than others, and to help them build their information literacy skills.  This must occur prior to the assignment where poor sources are banned, else the penalty will seem rather arbitrary and not an assessment of a skill learned earlier.

Online Educational Games: Natural Disaster Preparation with ‘Stop Disasters’

I came across a neat online resource that compiles a bunch of online games available for educators (Chang et al, 2009).  Naturally I immediately started playing some of them, and I’ll share my findings here.

The first game is called ‘Stop Disasters’, available at  Its a simulation of different disasters, including hurricanes, tsunamis, floods, wildfires, and earthquakes.  You act as the city planner for a particular area, and with a set budget have to decide how to prepare for a potential disaster while balancing other community needs (such as tourism or agriculture).  As you make decisions, helpful info boxes pop up to let you know how different measures make a difference. After twenty minutes, disaster strikes and you get a report on how well you met the objectives of the scenario, how many lives were lost, and whether or not you are fired from your position.  You also get a score that can be compared with other players.

The game is pretty fun.  I played through the tsunami scenario and completely messed up the first time.  I spent all my money on a seismic early warning sensor and other defenses, and not enough upgrading buildings with foundations and stilts or providing education on tsunami signs or clear evacuation procedures.  Building on high ground helps a lot, too.  The second time around was naturally easier, although 29 people still died, and I’m determined to play until everyone is saved.  Other pros of the game are that it is very easy to learn with a clean interface, it only takes 20 minutes (less if you complete your defenses early and want the disaster to happen sooner), and its available in several languages (Spanish, French, German, and Madarin (i think) in addition to English).

The downside is the problem that you know that in 20 minutes or so, disaster will strike.  Thus you have a strong incentive to build defenses.  Objectives such as ‘protecting livelihoods’ really mean ensuring that such buildings and businesses survive the disaster, rather than giving you a real choice in how you spend your money.  The game would be more useful if players had to balance keeping the economy going with disaster preparation, without a 100% chance of the disaster occurring.

Still, the game is fun and a useful way to start a discussion about why, if we know exactly what needs to be done to minimize losses during a disaster, these measures are not always taken.  Then the 100% chance of disaster becomes a starting point for the conversation, rather than defeating the point of the exercise.

This game could be used as a homework assignment in anticipation of a class on government responses to disasters, but it could also be used in-class.  The easy way would be to take the students to an electronic classroom, but it could be done in a room with internet and projector.  Simply choose your scenario ahead of time and write out their budget and the costs of all the different options on a handout.  Put the game up on the projector, put them into small groups, and give them 15 minutes to make their decisions.  Then insert the choices into the map, push the ‘start disaster’ button, and see what happens.  You can do this pretty quickly with each group and see whose plan worked best, and then discuss why.

Learning Outside the Classroom

Despite mission statements, learning objectives, and other verbiage that faculty expend much time and effort creating, many of our students still regard learning as something that only occurs in the classroom, with an older authority figure telling them what and how to learn.

I had two recent experiences that demonstrate the limitations of this perspective. The first involves my own efforts to learn how to create video/audio content for my upcoming hybrid course. The course meets only once per week and I’ve vowed not to do any formal lecturing in class. As a substitute, I decided to create a series of 3-4 minute lectures for the course website. Keep in mind that I have never uploaded a video to YouTube or podcasted, and for the past week I’ve been experimenting with microphones, a webcam, lights, and various pieces of software. Creating a quality product, or at least one that I find satisfactory, is something that I’ve had to learn how to do quickly and independently. I suspect that if I presented my undergraduate students with a similar task, many would simply give up at the first technical glitch. A few of them would probably ask friends for help, but most would probably come to class with the task uncompleted. And they’d expect me to show them which button they hadn’t pushed.

The other example is a local non-profit organization, Building a Community of Learning in Retirement (BCLIR). BCLIR promotes learning for retirees through community engagement and a peer-to-peer collaborative model  of instruction. BCLIR courses often tap into the expertise of local academics, but outside of the normal university framework. Its academic program is instead dependent upon the initiative of its members — in other words, its a true learning community that is very unlike what most college undergraduates experience.