Sunday, August 16, 2009

Teaching Naked: Another one of those nothing new here movements

That got your attention didn't it. Do not picture your colleagues in this role. Not attractive. Nope.

The pedagogy debate rages on. Those of you paying attention to the Comments section will notice that the previous "lecture" versus Web 2.0 discussion (that award winning one) has become re-activated. Thanks to Informalethnographer (I don't know how he wants me to link him up and I will edit this if/when he lets me know). We have this piece from the July 20th Chronicle of Higher Education, When Computers Leave Classrooms, So Does Boredom: Teaching Naked Effort Strips Computers from the Classroom The idea is that we should use our classrooms for engaging discussions. Well, duh.

The piece starts with an indictment of Power point lectures, arguing that studies show students find it "dull". But then I notice the piece goes a bit wobbly about half way through; changing up its arguments and the conclusions it draws from what students are saying, arguing for hiving off the boring lectures into podcasts to be viewed by students before coming to class. Oh...they are so doing that. Not. And, hey, logic-wise, I have a question: will podcasting make these boring lectures less boring?

How about if the whole class is a combination of lecture and interactive discussions. This isn't new.

Bottom line: students want human engagement. Small classes and caring profs give them that. How hard is that? I have been doing for over 20 years.

Why make them watch these ghastly boring podcasts from hell with no interaction and maybe not quite current. How about if we just be real old-fashioned and have them do the assigned readings before class? After all, reading is FUNdamental. Remember? Then we can lecture, discuss, lecture, discuss. Imagine that.

Two observations:

Power Point. Its a crutch for faculty, as well. World's Most Beautiful Sociology Prof and I laughed our butts off (Damn, *whips head around* sorry still there) when new faculty couldn't do lecture because "computer in class was down". Class dismissed for her. Me and WMBSP would, simply, carry on. But....we know our stuff. Cue: smug.

Student Laptops: A have had several students tell me that they purposely leave them at home because the temptation to Facebook is simply too strong and they know they need to focus. Many do support a ban.

Hey, let's all skip and go naked. And could you pedagogy people stop acting like you have some new and innovative technique that is going to transform the world? The ridiculous "aren't I cool" self-promotion is wearing thin.


Bill Guinee said...

Powerpoint can be extremely boring if it is nothing but text that simly reiterates lecture. I use Powerpoint to illustrate the lectures and discussion, literally. It's like when I was a child and would ask my mother to show me the pictures in the book she was reading. I rarely have more than a few words (a caption for the picture) in a PPT slide. PowerPoint should be used as a way to help visual learners - to give their memories something to latch on to, and not a way to post your class notes so that the class can copy them verbatim. Used properly, I have found that the students enjoy and look forward to the PPT, and if the computer isn't working, then they just don't get the illustrations that day.

Pamthropologist said...

Bill, you and I are in perfect accord. I do add some definitions but only because I have grown weary of chalk dust. I have, actually, asked my students and they have, rather comfortingly, assured me that I get it just right. I should add that I use it to bring up my clips (like TED and YouTube), also.

I don't give out my PP's, though. At a Community College you have to find a way to reward attendance.

Denice said...

I came to post the same thing as Bill, but he beat me to it. I show pictures, definitions, and sometimes a quote I find particularly effective but that I don't want to sit and read in front of class. I find PowerPoint to be highly effective - in making sure I include everything I wanted to say. I use it as a sort of timer. I embed video in it, short clips to start talking points or even to make my students laugh. And I do post them online for the students, but since they are mostly images and not text, the students still have to come to class.

Folks who state that we should throw out the computers give me pause. It should be just another tool in engaging the learning process, not the whole process itself. We have visual learners, tactile learners, etc., and if I want to make sure I reach them all, I need to use the tools that will do that.

Linda said...

From a communicator's perspective you are using PPT exactly as it should be used. PPT should not be a reiteration of what a student can find in the textbook. So many haven't figured this out yet including instructors and folks conducting business meetings.

enkerli said...

Thanks for the ping. No problem about the way you do it. In fact, feel free to use my name. I use "Informal Ethnographer" accounts for social media stuff having to do with ethnographic disciplines, but this is more about pedagogy.

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enkerli said...

The main thing I noticed about this piece is that the author transforms an interesting and potentially insightful story about problems facing a large number of academic institutions "going forward" into one of those sterile debates about the causal relationships between technology and learning.

Apart from all those things we've discussed about teaching method (including the fact that I still use the boring PPT-lecture on occasion), there's a lot of room for discussion about the "educational industry" not getting a hint from the recording and journalism industries. Because we're academics, it's great to deconstruct the technological determinism embedded in many of these discussions. But there's also something rather pressing in terms of social change: the World in which we live is significantly different from the one in which we were born, when it comes to information. It relates to "information technology" but it goes way beyond tools.
And this is where I talk about surfing the wave instead of fighting it (or building windmills instead of shelters).

enkerli said...

As I said elsewhere, I've only been teaching for ten years. When I started, in Fall 1999 at Indiana University Bloomington, it was both a baptism by fire and a culture shock. Many teachers complain about a "sense of entitlement" they get from their students, or about the consumer-based approach in academic institutions. There's a number of discussion about average class size or students-to-teacher ratio. Some talk about a so-called "me generation." Others moan about the fact that students bring laptops in class or that teachers are forced to use tools that they don't want to use.
These are really not recent problems. However, they are different problems from the ones for which I was prepared.
I'd still say that they affect some institutions more than others (typically: prestigious universities in the United States). But they're spreading throughout higher education.
Bowen perceives a specific problem: campus-based universities face competition from inexpensive and even free material online. As a dean, he wants to focus on the added value of campus experience, with a focus on the classroom as a context for discussion. It seems that he was hired precisely as an agent of change, just like some "mercurial CEOs" are hired when a corporation is in trouble.
The plan is relatively creative. Not so much in the restrictions on PPT use, but on the overall approach to differentiate his institution. It's a marketing ploy, not a PR one.

enkerli said...

As for the specifics of people's concepts of "lecturing"... It seems that the mainstream notion about lecture is for a linear presentation with little or no interaction possible. Other teaching methods may involve some "lecturing," but it seems that the core notion people are discussing is really this soliloquy mode of the teacher exposing ideas without input from the audience. One way to put it is that it's a genre of performance, like a "stand-up" or an opera.
As a subgenre, "PowerPoint lectures" may deserve special consideration. As we all know, it's quite possible to use PPT in ways which are creative, engaging, fun, deep, etc. But there are many keys to the "PowerPoint lecture" frame. One is the use of some kind of "visual aid." Another is the use of different slides as key timeposts in the performance. Or we could think about the fact that control over the actual PPT file strengthens the role differentiation between "lecturer" and "audience." Not to mention the fact that it's quite difficult to use PPT slides when everyone is in a circle.
So, yes, I'm giving some credence to the notion that PPT is a significant part of the lecturing model people are discussing ad nauseam.
Much of these discussions may relate to the perception that this performance genre (what I would call "straight lecture" or «cours magistral») is dominant, at institutions of higher education. The preponderance of a given teaching style across a wide array of institutions, disciplines, and "levels" would merit careful assessment, but the perception is there. "People" (the general population of the United States, the Chronicle's readership, English-speakers...?) get the impression that what teachers do is mostly: stand in front of a class to talk by themselves for significant amounts of time with, maybe, a few questions thrown in at the end. Some people say that such "lectures" may not be incredibly effective. But the notion is still there. You may call this a "straw man," but it's been built a while ago.

enkerli said...

Now... There are many ways to go from this whole concept of "straight lecturing." One is the so-called "switcharound": you go from lecturing (as a mode) to discussion or to group activities (as distinct modes). The notion, there, is apparently about the fact that "studies have shown" that, at this point in time, English-speaking students in the United States can't concentrate for more than 20 minutes at the time. Or some such.
I reacted quite strongly when I heard this. For several reasons, including my personal experience of paying attention during class meetings lasting seven hours or more, some of which involving very limited interaction. I also reacted because I found the 50 minute period very constraining. And I always react to the "studies have shown" stance, that I find deeply problematic at an epistemological level. Is this really how we gain knowledge?
But I digress...
Another way to avoid "straight lectures" is to make lecturing itself more interactive. Many people have been doing this for a while. Chances are, it was done by a number of people during the 19th Century, as the "modern classroom" was invented. It can be remarkably effective and it seems to be quite underrated. An important thing to note: it's significantly different from what people have in mind, when they talk about "lecturing." In fact, in a workshop I attended, the simple fact that a teacher was moving around the classroom as he was teaching has been used as an example of an alternative to lecturing. Seems to me that most teachers do something like this. But it's useful to think about the implications of using such "alternative methods." Personally, though I frequently think about those methods and I certainly respect those who use them, I don't tend to focus so much on this. I do use "alternative lecturing methods" like these, on occasion but, when I lecture, I tend to adopt the classical approach.

enkerli said...

Common alternatives to lecturing, mentioned in the CHE piece, include "seminars, practical sessions, and group discussions," These all tend to be quite difficult to do in the... "lecture" hall. Even with smaller classes, a large room may be an obstacle. Though it's not impossible to have, say, group discussions in an auditorium, few of us really end up doing it on a regular basis. I'm "guilty" of that: I have much less small-group discussions in rooms in which desks can't be moved.
As for seminars, it's clearly my favourite teaching mode/method and I tend to extend the concept too much. Though I tend to be critical of those rigid "factors" like class size, I keep bumping into a limit to seminar size and I run into major hurdles when I try to get more than 25 students working in a seminar mode.
We could also talk about distance education as an alternative to lecturing, though much of it has tended to be lecture-based. Distance education is interesting in many respects. While it's really not new, it seems like it has been expanding a lot in the fairly recent past. Regardless of the number of people getting degrees through distance learning, it mostly seems that the concept has become much more accepted by the general population (in English-speaking contexts, at least) and some programmes in distance learning seem to be getting more "cred" than ever before. I don't want to overstate this expansion but it's interesting to think about the possible connections with social change. Telecommuting, students working full-time, combining studying with childcare, homestudy, rising tuition costs, customer-based approaches to education, the "me generation," the ease of transmitting complex data online, etc.
Even when distance learners have to watch lectures, distance education can be conceived as an alternative to the "straight lecture." Practical details such as scheduling aren't insignificant, but there are more profound implications to the fact that lectures aren't "delivered in a lecture hall." To go back to the performance genre, there's a difference between a drama piece and a movie. Both can be good, but they have very different implications.
My implication with distance learning has to do with online learning. Last summer, I began teaching sociology to nursing students in Texas. From Montreal. I had been thinking about online teaching for a while and I've always had an online component to my courses. But last year was the first time I was able to teach a course without ever meeting those students.
My impression is that the rise of online education was the main thing Bowen had in mind. He clearly seems to think that this rise will only continue and that it may threaten campus-based institutions if they don't do anything about it. The part which is surprising about his approach is that he actually advocates blended learning. Though we may disagree with Bowen on several points, it'd be difficult to compare him to an ostrich.

enkerli said...

All of these approaches and methods have been known for a while. They all have their own advantages and they all help raise different issues. But they've been tested rather extensively by generation upon generation of teachers.
The focus, today, seems to be on a new set of approaches. Most of them have direct ties to well-established teaching models like seminars and distance education. So, they're not really "new." Yet they combine different things in such a way that they clearly require experimentation. We can hail them as "the future" or dismiss them as "trendy," but they still afford some consideration as avenues for experimentation.
Many of them can be subsumed under the umbrella term "blended learning." That term can mean different things to different people and some use it as a kind of buzzword. Analytically, it's still a useful term.
Nellie Muller Deutsch is among those people who are currently doing PhD research on blended learning. We've had a number of discussions through diverse online groups devoted to learning and teaching. It's possible that my thinking has been influenced by Nellie, but I was already interested in those topics long before interacting with her.
"Blended learning" implies some combinaison of classroom and online interactions between learners and teachers. The specific degree of "blending" varies a lot between contexts, but the basic concept remains. One might even argue that any educational context is blended, nowadays, since most teachers end up responding to at least "a few emails" (!) every semester. But the extensible concept of the "blended campus" easily goes beyond those direct exchanges.
What does this have to do with lectures? A lot, actually. Especially for those who have in mind a "monolithic" model for lecture-based courses, often forgetting (as many students do!) the role of office hours and other activities outside of the classroom.
Just as it's possible but difficult to do a seminar in a lecture hall, it's possible but difficult to do "straight lecture" in blended learning. Those professors and adjuncts who want to have as little interactions with students as possible may end up complaining about the amount of email they receive. In a sense, they're "victims" of the move to a blended environment. One of the most convincing ideas I've heard in a teaching workshop was about moving email exchanges with individual students to forums, so that everyone can more effectively manage the channels of communication. Remarkably simple and compatible with many teaching styles. And a very reasonable use of online tools.

enkerli said...

Bowen was advocating a very specific model for blended learning: students work with required readings on their own (presumably, using coursepacks and textbooks), read/watch/listen to lecture material online, and convene in the classroom to work with the material. His technique for making sure that students don't "skip class" (which seems important in the United States, for some reason) is to give multiple-choice quizzes. Apart from justifying presence on campus (in the competition with distance learning), Bowen's main point is about spending as much face-to-face time as possible in discussions. It's not really an alternative to lectures if there are lectures online, but it's a clear shift in focus from the "straight lecture" model. Fairly creative and it's certainly worth some experimentation. But it's only one among many possible approaches.
At least for the past few years, I've been posting material online both after and ahead of class meetings. I did notice a slight decrease in attendance, but that tends to matter very little for me. I also notice that many students tend to be more reluctant to go online to do things for my courses than one would expect from most of the discussions at an abstract level. But it's still giving me a lot, including in terms of not having to rehash the same material over and over again (and again, ad nauseam).
I wouldn't really call my approach "blended learning" because, in most of my upper-level courses at least, there's still fairly little interaction happening online. But I do my part to experiment with diverse methods and approaches.

enkerli said...

None of this is meant to be about evaluating different approaches to teaching. I'm really not saying that my approach is better than anybody else's. But I will say that it's an appropriate fit with my perspective on learning as well as with my activities outside of the classroom. In other words, it's not because I'm a geek that I expect anybody else to become a geek. I do, however, ask others to accept me as a geek.

And, Pamthropologist, you provided on my blog some context for several of the comments you've been making about lecturing. I certainly respect you and I think I understand what's going on. In fact, I get the impression that you're very effective at teaching anthropology and I wish your award-winning blog entry also carried an award for teaching. The one thing I find most useful, in all of this, is that you do discuss those issues. IMHO, the most important thing isn't to find what the best model is but to discuss learning and teaching in a thoughtful manner so that everyone gets a voice. The fact that one of the most recent comments on your blog comes from a student in the Philippines speaks volumes about your openness.

geek said...

Thank you for professors like you who teach well, care for their students and make sure their students learn. You make the world a better place, really. I hope I meet people like you in the future and I hope I could do the same thing in the future. :)

Susan said...

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