Technology and its Softer side to Learning

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Much has been written on the topic of incorporating technology into the classroom, all in the name of increasing student success through increased engagement. Technology has been an important factor in the concept of the flipped classroom and “teaching naked” (José Bowen) where the students are responsible for viewing lectures and doing the readings beforehand so that the classroom can become more activity-focused and engaging.

It has been an established part of online learning where both access to, and preparation for, the use of technology is critical to learning and participation in this digital environment, especially as a way of reducing the distance between students – each other or between them and the faculty. The results are mixed with many claiming that MOOCs are the new egalitarian education. But the results are mixed, especially when applying this to credit-bearing courses. The engagement of both learner and educator become critical and results often depend upon the increased fortitude from highly prepared students and faculty who are both committed to successful completion.

But technology can also play an important pedagogical role in the area of personal narratives as a tool for increased student engagement. Digital storytelling is the subject of a brief guide published by Educause that provides some food for thought on how to incorporate the digital medium effectively and accessibly without requiring a high mastery of advanced digital tools. Today, students and faculty have access to a digital movie studio in their telephones, and can easily edit on mobile devices or their desktop and save it in a format that can be viewed for free online.

The goal, however, is not just to create another way to utilize technology in the classroom. The real objective is to instill passion in the topic leading to the successful achievement in the learning outcome. Humans are natural storytellers. We can ask students to incorporate research and resources into their projects. But by also allowing them to make it personal, they become more engaged. This becomes not just something they have to study, but something they are immediately making relevant to their own worlds.

Ken Bain, author of What the Best College Teachers Do, would call this deeper learning, something that may be achieved through a series of “goal-based scenarios.” His follow-up book What the Best College Students do addresses the passion that students can find within to motivate their own learning. Hear Ken Bain in this recent NPR interview from May 2015.

What does all this have in common? It is the combination of inspiring student passion and the ability to express a personal connection to the material that creates passion for learning. This makes digital storytelling a powerful tool for student engagement that can be applied within any discipline we teach. To learn more, follow some of the links provided above and discover more ways to be inspired to apply this in your own classroom!

Some useful reflections on the Flipped classroom

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Math professor and Chronicle blogger (Casting Out Nines) Robert Talbert had some great reflections on the concept of the Flipped Classroom in his post –Three evolving thoughts about flipped learning – from January 22, 2015. He reflects on how his thinking has changed from a more structured approach, to a more thoughtful one that doesn’t abandon lectures, doesn’t abandon assessment, but he has modified it to meet his students where they are, rather than create stress that doesn’t improve learning.

I wish more of us would … transcend the shopworn “lecture sucks” narrative and instead try to craft the best pedagogy that combines the most effective uses of several modalities.

Read the full article here.

Reflecting on the Continuing Challenges of Teaching at Community Colleges

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As we take this time to look back upon 2014, those of us who teach and work at community colleges may consider how much our work has reached the attention of the nation. The challenges posed in educating our students are not completely lost on observers and critics. But when focusing upon the statistics often featured at the center of official reports and white papers, it is easy to miss the narratives of the main stakeholders, the students and educators.

A recent New York Times article highlights some of these challenges as told through the story of Dr. Eduardo Vianna, a psychology professor at LaGuardia Community College in Queens, arguably one of the most diverse community colleges in the nation. The article, “Raising Ambitions: The Challenge in Teaching at Community Colleges” by Ginia Bellafante and published December 19, 2014, reminds us of the important role our institutions play in educating nearly half of all undergraduates nationally. Even more so, community colleges see the majority of our students coming from the “lower half of the income distribution.” Along with this come many challenges in terms of the lack of preparation for college, including poor analytical and critical thinking skills. Yet those skills are vital to meeting the demands of economic mobility and growth.

To create a world of young people skilled at analysis, you first need to create a world of young people receptive to complexity, and many of Dr. Vianna’s students, he said ‘cringe at complexity.’
– G. Bellafante, NY Times, 12/19/14

Many of us who teach at these institutions will recognize elements of the story from our own classroom experiences. Vianna shares how his students found it difficult to assess evidence from data posed to them that conflicted with their own assumptions. By way of example, he shares how he gave his students an assignment based on the work of psychologist Edward C. Tolman. The graph they were reviewing showed that rats could learn to navigate a maze without extrinsic rewards, yet the students could not see this and came to the opposite conclusions.

“Often learning requires changing one’s position toward some issue and they resist this.”
– Dr. Eduardo Vianna

To help prepare incoming students to meet the expectations of critical and conceptual thinking, many community colleges have begun requiring students to take a first year seminar course. The courses also connect students to faculty in their majors, another important aspect in student engagement, according to much of the published research. Community college educators are also leading the way towards facilitating learning rather than simply lecturing facts, involving students in more active learning and collaboration, and offering continuous forms of low-stakes assessment. These are all parts of the arsenal of techniques meant to improve student engagement. These and other pedagogical approaches are addressed in a forthcoming book “Taking Teaching Seriously: Why Pedagogy Matters! that includes contributions by Dr. Gail O. Mellow, president of LaGuardia Community College.

At Columbia’s Community College Research Center, assistant director Melinda Karp suggests that in order to engage our students in academic discourse, a more constructivist approach may be necessary, one that involves more active and collaborative learning. These techniques have already been embraced by many community college educators. Bringing it mainstream requires sharing it college-wide.

As we reflect upon the needs of our students, at the Center for Teaching & Learning at Mott Community College, as with similar centers at community colleges around the country, we understand the role of professional development opportunities in addressing the issues raised in the NY Times article. Just as with the students we teach, sharing among our colleagues about successes gained, while working through the challenges, can help community college educators – faculty and staff alike – meet the challenges of raising the ambitions – and ultimately the success – of the students we serve.

With warm wishes for the holidays and beyond!

Measuring Faculty Attitudes towards Technology & Online Learning

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Only about 9% of faculty surveyed in a recent Gallup study published by Inside Higher Ed said they would “strongly agree” that online courses have similar achievement levels for student learning outcomes compared to face-to-face courses. Titled The 2014 Inside Higher Ed Survey of Faculty Attitudes on Technology, the survey reveals an apparent disconnect between the attitudes of technology officers and faculty on how well online courses address 8 quality factors for online learning.

The authors of the study identified quality factors for online courses for their survey:

1) Ability to deliver the necessary content to meet learning objectives.

2) Ability to answer student questions.

3) Interaction with students during class.

4) Interaction with students outside of class.

5) Grading and communicating about grading.

6) Communication with the college about logistical and other issues.

7) Ability to reach “at risk” students.

8) Ability to reach “exceptional” students.

In general, the authors reported that the majority of Technology officers rated these factors as being equivalent or better than in-person courses. Faculty were a bit more ambivalent indicating that only four of those quality factors might be equivalent for online courses to in-person courses. For instance, 50% indicated that online courses had the ability to meet learning outcomes that were the same for both formats. And 72% of faculty said online was the same or better than in-person for grading or communicating about grades.

On the flip side, 77% of faculty responded that they felt online teaching had a much lower potential to reach at-risk students compared to in-person. For institutions such as Mott, measures have been taken to make sure that students who are identified as at-risk (i.e. lower GPA, attendance, placement test results indicating remediation) cannot register for online-only courses before addressing these issues.

The results are not all negative, however. According to the study’s authors:

More than 8 in 10 instructors say they have converted a face-to-face course to a hybrid course.

This may be in part because a large portion (78%) already use learning management systems to share some basic information such as syllabi, grades, and general communications. Just over half (51%) of faculty agree that more active learning – or what José Antonio Bowen referred to as Teaching Naked – can be done with the flipped classroom approach of blended or hybrid courses.

In reviewing the data shared in the report, it is interesting to note a few elements that were not highlighted by the authors in their summary. For instance, 56% of the respondents fell between the ages of 50-69 with another 6% aged 70 and older. Among faculty, 49% were tenured while 31% were not on any tenure track. Among disciplines represented by faculty, a larger portion – 29% – identified their field with the Humanities, compared to 17% in Social Sciences, 19% in Engineering/Physical Science/Biological Sciences, and only 5% in Computer and Information Sciences. Among faculty 78% who responded were fulltime.

Asked of the technology officers, they indicated that 85% of their institutions offered some blended or hybrid courses, and 73% offered online degree programs. The institutions that were represented in the survey represented a variety, including community colleges (26%), public four-year (26%), private four-year (43%) and for-profit (2%). There were no private two-year institutions represented in the survey respondents.

While the results seem to portray a system that does not have full consensus, there is at least one area where the majority of faculty agree, early warning systems for students at risk of dropping out of their courses do help students. Based on other responses in the survey, and consistent with other research, the early warning system triggers a team response that serves to reach out to the student and provide some kind of intervention before they fail.

Want to read more from this study? It offers some interesting insights into the role of online learning, faculty and technology officer perceptions, and learning outcomes. Download the full study here.

The Quest for Critical Thinking – Essays on one of education’s greatest challenges

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It isn’t enough that we train students to put widget A into slot B so they can fulfill the old-fashioned notion of the manufacturing jobs of the past. Employers nowadays are asking for highly skilled graduates to fill their growing number of positions in the post-recession job market. And among the most commonly-stated job skills are really soft skills that revolve around critical thinking.

What IS critical thinking? It is the notion that we can make reasoned decisions, judgements that are based on analysis of a particular situation, that we can synthesize information, context, and experience and reflect upon it in order to guide our actions.

The authors of the essays in a recent publication – The Quest for Critical Thinking – released by Inside Higher Ed, are flexing the very same intellectual muscles in order to examine how to build that capacity into student learning in higher education. For community colleges, we generally have two-year programs that are designed with two outcomes in mind – occupational preparation for entry-level work in a field upon completion of an Associates degree program, or transfer into a four-year program at a university. Many vocational faculty may bristle at the idea that they must include “general education” – liberal arts courses – into their programs while trying to cram in all of the latest greatest training for in-demand skill-sets. Yet liberal arts faculty have difficulty articulating how their courses can help build those critical thinking skills that can expand the longterm employability of graduates.

Author Michael Roth, president of Wesleyan University and one of the compilation contributors, wrote in his essay “A World Without Liberal Learning,” about the history of American liberal education beginning with Thomas Jefferson and the University of Virginia. Describing Jefferson’s intentions for having students study a broad range of subjects, Roth said that this built a culture of “free inquiry” that would “help build a citizenry of independent thinkers who took responsibility for their actions in the context of their communities and the new Republic.” Roth argues that we must move beyond the concept of “utilitarian training” warning that if we did not, we would be creating graduates who would be unprepared for a fast-changing world and whose skill-sets would become obsolete before too long.

Asking what America would look like if we were to give up on liberal education in favor of purely vocational training, Roth claims  we would be disempowering students, removing stimulation of lifelong learning and inquiry.

We would become a cultural and economic backwater, competing with various regions for the privilege of operationalizing somebody else’s new ideas. (Michael Roth)

In another essay, Patricia Okker, professor of English and interim deputy provost at the University of Missouri at Columbia, argues that the faculty have an important role to play in making the liberal arts relevant. Titled “It’s the Faculty’s Job, too”, Okker describes how she created a course on career exploration that challenges students to start tying their studies together. Students from many disciplines are asked to do much self-reflection on the transferability of skills gained in their liberal arts courses. Elements of constructive criticism, for instance, provides a skill that builds the ability to provide valuable feedback to employees.

Students still need to identify skills specific to their individual experiences and affinities, and they need lots of practice articulating these strengths to potential employers. (Patricia Okker)

Okker argues that faculty in particular disciplines must become willing partners in the career counseling for students in order to help them recognize and understand the transferability of their skills to the workplace.

Other essays in the compilation address the issue of critical thinking from a wide range of perspectives. Gloria Cordes Larson, president of Bentley University, for instance, argues that that this is “A False Choice” in her essay. Her institution conducted a survey of stakeholders that found that employers were “sending mixed messages” that a blend of hard and soft skills were still the most highly desirable from business. The confusion lies in that business leaders would often put soft skills at the top of the list while their actions showed that industry-specific skills helped candidates get the job.

Larson encourages the development of courses that “fuse liberal arts and professional skills” combined with experiential learning opportunities that help reinforce the value of these skills. By way of example, she describes a course called “Ethics of Entrepreneurship” which combines critical thinking, writing, and a semester-long project. Another example of fusion is a management course on Interpersonal relations that she says is combined with an English course on women in film that explores how “women are perceived in film and how this can affect management styles.” She indicates that all of this must be combined with an experiential learning opportunity in order to effectively connect the esoteric to hard-skills and that business and industry should be encouraged to play a part in this active-learning.

In yet another essay by Lee Burdette Williams, vice president for student affairs and dean of students at Wheaton College in Massachusetts, the argument is made that personal maturity plays an important role in education. He breaks this down into four overall equations that exemplify his thinking:

1) A marketable (STEM or other professional focused) major + good interpersonal skills = very likely professional success

2) A liberal arts major +  good interpersonal skills = possible professional success

3) A marketable major without interpersonal skills = possible professional success (some skills, he says, are valuable enough to overlook the lack of interpersonal skills)

4) A liberal arts major without interpersonal skills = not much chance of professional success

His advice to many undecided students:

Major in something you enjoy and do it well. (Lee Burdette Williams)

In everything one does as a student, one should do it well. The campus can be “real world” complete with hassles, disappointments, deadlines, consequences, etc. Williams argues that the discussion needs to shift from an “obsession with the obvious value of a liberal arts education and instead focus on the values of personal maturity, accountability, a sense of proportion and perspective.”

There are many more essays in this publication, all of which are worth the read and tackle the topic of critical thinking from a variety of perspectives. Be sure to download and read the entire compilation here.

Sowing the Seeds for a More Creative Society

Yes, you heard it here… from me, the art faculty turned faculty director for the CTL at Mott. But I couldn’t resist. There’s a great Webinar from an Adobe series called #CreateEdu which will be held Wednesday, September 17, 2014 at 1 pm PDT (about 4 pm EDT) which blends computer sciences with creative approaches to learning.

Led by MIT’s Mitch Resnick, a computer scientist with the famous MIT Media Lab, this Webinar session explores how new technologies can engage students in creative learning experiences. Resnick, author of several books, won the McGraw prize in Education. His focus in this week’s session will be on “Scratch” described as a “new programming language and online community that enables young people to create their own interactive stories, games, and animations” which can then be shared. Just think of the possibilities for YOUR classroom!

Here’s a link to the webinar description and registration.

And here’s a link to his TED Talk that you may enjoy, as well!

 


Young people today have lots of experience … interacting with new technologies, but a lot less so of creating [or] expressing themselves with new technologies. It’s almost as if they can read but not write.


~ Mitch Resnick

You can find more webinars from Adobe by visiting their Professional Development section of their website at: https://edex.adobe.com/professional-development/events