Friday, September 30, 2011

Twitter in the Classroom

Here's a marketing professor over at The Chronicle of Higher Education explaining how she used Twitter in her online course to create community and teach social-media intelligence. I've been meaning to try this out with my Writing for Business course. The use of Web 2.0 stuff is now essential for any business writer.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Philosophy of Everything (and Nothing)

I haven't been too impressed by "The Stone," which is The New York Times' online philosophy forum. Nonetheless, I'm glad a major newspaper is devoting space to philosophy, whose lack of media coverage these days makes poetry look like Jersey Shore by comparison. Also, today's column contains a gem of a paragraph by Timothy Williamson, who is calling into question the coherency of naturalism (defined here as a philosophy that treats the hard sciences as the most reliable source of knowledge).

We can formulate the underlying worry as a sharp argument against the extreme naturalist claim that all truths are discoverable by hard science. If it is true that all truths are discoverable by hard science, then it is discoverable by hard science that all truths are discoverable by hard science. But it is not discoverable by hard science that all truths are discoverable by hard science. “Are all truths discoverable by hard science?” is not a question of hard science. Therefore the extreme naturalist claim is not true.

This is a nifty little logic trick, but, I think, not merely a play of words. It's more akin to a Zen koan, those self-cancelling (literally, I suppose) thought puzzles. It also reminds me of something I learned in Modern Western Philosophy (i.e. Descartes through Kant) back in my undergraduate days: The popular sentiment "Everything is subjective" cannot be true, since it is, in fact, an objective statement. That is, in order to be true, it has to prove itself false. "Everything is subjective" presents itself as an objective statement. Angst-ridden freshman don't like this.

Deschooling Society, Ctd

What would be gained and what would be lost if we abolished majors and departments? What if, instead, schools were organized around problems students were interested in?

Is there really such a thing as an English problem? There are, of course, math problems, but does math alone ever solve anything? Not without implementation, a budget, science, writing, and so on.

What if students began their freshman years by setting out to solve some problem of their choosing, working in teams or loose networks of students and instructors. You could major in, let's say, Climate Change, and study the history, literature, science, and math (even the sociology or psychology) of the problem as you worked toward the completion of a project designed to interact with the outside world.

A team of Climate Change majors would be allotted a budget to be spent on materials and to pay for instructor/consultants. (Maybe they would actually have to raise the funds by writing grant proposal.) They could set certain goals to publish, host an event, create a website, or lobby for a piece of legislation.

There would be roles for all "majors," such as accountants, programmers, writers, scientists. Maybe students wold work on one project per year, and then switch majors. (Sophomore year: Artificial Intelligence. The team poet might work with the programmer to create artificially generated poetry, or to write sharp criticism of that from a humanist perspective.)

Not only would students be applying their knowledge and creating something new, they would also be contributing directly to society and making good on the taxpayers' investments.

I have been thinking of such a re-organization, and trying, on a smaller scale, to encourage autonomy in writing classes by asking students to find any topic of interest to them and becoming experts through reading, thinking, and writing. After completing a traditional academic research paper, I plan on spending the rest of the semester working with them on some creative project based on their topic or problem. Not sure where it's all going yet: presentation, novella, electronic light show...could be anything.

Here is a related excerpt from the book I'm reading, Deschooling Society. Though written in the early 1970's, Ivan Illich was anticipating the new possibilities that the internet affords:

But the idea remains the same: they should be able to meet around a problem chosen and defined by their own initiative. Creative, exploratory learning requires peers currently puzzled about the same terms or problems. Large universities make the futile attempt to match them by multiplying their courses, and they generally fail since they are bound to curriculum, course structure, and bureaucratic administration. In schools, including universities, most resources are spent to purchase the time and motivation of a limited number of people to take up predetermined problems in a ritually defined setting. The most radical alternative to school would be a network or service which gave each man the same opportunity to share his current concern with others motivated by the same concern.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

From Deschooling Society

I'm reading Ivan Illich's Deschooling Society and found this powerful excerpt about Brazilian educator Paulo Freire's work teaching illiterate villagers to read:

Paulo Freire discovered that any adult can begin to read in a matter of forty hours if the first words he deciphers are charged with political meaning. Freire trains his teachers to move into a village and to discover the words which designate current important issues, such as the access to a well or the compound interest on the debts owed to the patron. In the evening the villagers meet for the discussion of these key words. They begin to realize that each word stays on the blackboard even after its sound has faded. The letters continue to unlock reality and to make it manageable as a problem. I have frequently witnessed how discussants grow in social awareness and how they are impelled to take political action as fast as they learn to read. They seem to take reality into their hands as they write it down.

Words unlock words. We have to find the keys.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Robots Won't Make Good Teachers Because They Will Kill Their Students

Educational Origami presents an intriguing diagram of 21st centuray pedagogy, as well as some definitions, examples, taxonomies, and resources found here.

(By the way, is "pedagogy" a foot disease? Sounds like it.)

Whenever I hear "21st Century" anything, I think of robots. I can't help it. So, if I had to answer the question, "What is 21st Century Pedagogy?" I would say....well, first I would say, "A foot disease found in robots."

Then I would say, "21st Century Pedagogy is robot teachers and students enhancing their functionality while humans change their oil and work in their mines."

You see, robots will require a lot of rare earth material which must be mined from rare earth stockpiles in China and elsewhere. Your cell phone is filled with rare earth, for example. Although, now that I think about it, robots could just make more robots to mine their rare earth. It's worse than I thought! We will be totally expendable!

And since we're not anywhere close to figuring out how to replicate morality and compassion in robots (robots are great at computation, playing chess, searching for information, and generally dominating us at left-brain skills, but they're subhuman in creativity, emotion, empathy, self-reflection, facial recognition, detecting sarcasm and irony, etc.) robots will likely be psychopathic fascists who will recognize humans as data bits to manipulate or pests to exterminate.

This is why robots won't make good teachers. They will kill their human students. That is not cool.

So long as the acquisition of knowledge is the main goal of education, we are conceding ground to the robots.

In other words, if memorization and regurgitation are central to your course, you're letting the robots win.

Let's put the robots to work for us. They can't beat us at higher order thinking, shown here courtesy of Educational Origami:

external image model-2-300x261.jpg

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Education Zen

Last night in class I said, "The worst way to write a 750-word essay is to sit down and write a 750-word essay." Zen or nonsense?

Monday, September 19, 2011

Learning as Pleasure

For a student, the opening sentence of the Analects of Confucius might be groan-inducing:

Is it not a pleasure, having learned something, to try it out at due intervals?

This sounds like the prelude to a homework assignment. Even worse, did Confucius just say that learning was a form of pleasure?

I wonder if one of his students ever raised a hand and said, "But, Master, school sucks!"

What's the opposite of pleasure? Boredom.

What's the dominant emotion of our time? Boredom.

Why are movies getting more violent, gross, and gratuitous? Is it because of some decline in values? Are kids today just more depraved?

No. They're bored. They're bored and they're trying to shock their way out of it. And, briefly, it works. But of course it doesn't last. Last year's controversial head-chopping looks tame. This year's controversial head-explosion ups the ante.

But of course it's all boring. Always was. Slasher flicks and horror movies simply wouldn't exist without 16-34 year-olds. Box office receipts prove this. (Just like Justin Bieber wouldn't exist without 8-16 year old girls.) For the vast majority of the planet, 35 and up, horror/slasher films are sooooooooooo boring. Shock and violence and gratuitous sex perhaps never lose a certain appeal, but compared to a good story or a compelling idea, they are, to quote Sarah Palin for the first time in my life, "lamestream."

Let me call on two witnesses: William Wordsworth and Boone's Farm "wine."

First, in his celebrated "Preface to Lyrical Ballads," (1801) Wordsworth establishes a sort of hierarchy of literary content, placing "gross and violent stimulus"(or what we might call trash, pulp, or shock) on the bottom and the more elusive pleasures of the mind at the top:

For the human mind is capable of being excited without the application of gross and violent stimulants; and he must have a very faint perception of its beauty and dignity who does not know this, and who does not further know, that one being is elevated above another, in proportion as he possesses this capability. It has therefore appeared to me, that to endeavour to produce or enlarge this capability is one of the best services in which, at any period, a Writer can be engaged.

Wordsworth is calling on writers to recognize the higher pleasures, to aspire toward more subtle depictions of beauty and complexity, subjects more difficult to render effectively in words, but less ephemeral than cheaply-produced moments of flash and flesh.

This all sounds vaguely snobbish, and highly subjective. Who is Wordsworth, after all, to tell someone that Waiting for Godot is better than South Park because it relies less on blood, vomit, and profanity to reach its audience and communicate its message? (And, by the way, all that vaudeville slapstick and repetition in Godot is pretty low-brow, isn't it? Not to mention Pozzo whipping Lucky like a horse.)

Enter witness #2: At less than $4 a bottle (I think you can still buy it for less than $3; It was $2 when I was in college), the fruity, bubbly Boone's Farm satisfies the need for a cheap buzz (provided you are at least 21-years-old), and if you're far more accustomed to the taste of wine coolers, you might actually find the stuff to be tasty. However, if your tastes make any progress at all in the wine department, you must eventually admit that Boone's Farm wine tastes like fermented Diet Cherry 7up. You will instead long for something more complex, balanced, and suitable less for a desperate life under an overpass, and more for sipping and pairing with dinner.

If you still prefer Boone's farm after a proper introduction to more complex wine (and it isn't just a matter of cost), your opinion is yours to keep. It's not that a California Cabernet is objectively "better" than a bottle of Boone's Farm Snow Creek Berry, because what's "better" and taste is taste. However, we can objectively say that a California Cabernet has a more complex composition, was more difficult to make, and that people who spend a lot of time making, drinking, and writing and thinking about wine (otherwise known as experts) will tell you that a Cabernet is better than Boone's Farm 99 times out of 100. They could be on to something.

But I drank Boone's Farm once. And I enjoyed horror films. The former now repulses me. The latter just makes me bored. Whenever I see a commercial for the latest Freddie vs. Teen-Wolf movie, in my head I chant, "Bo-ring! Bo-ring! Bo-ring!"

And I'm sure I have students doing the same thing during class.

Maybe I am boring. Or maybe it just takes a while to develop the subtle pleasures of learning. It takes time, and experience, and someone else to point these things out. Enter the teacher.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Third-Way Model for Higher Education?

Those of us in the world of non-profit education have watched the rise (and stall?) of for-profit colleges with a certain amount of angst. We feel (I think rightly) that profit motive can undermine the aims of education, that scaling up is good for business but bad for the product. In fact, we don't say "product." We say "learning." We recoil at referring to students as customers, even though we are here to serve.

At the same time, we know that education costs money, that consumers make decisions in the education marketplace based on many of the same factors that influence other purchases: cost, convenience, instant gratification, and the like. While we might not like the streamlined (or some might say stripped-down) online courses offered at many for-profit schools, we're not blind to the future. Online courses, blended courses, and learning management systems will have an increasing impact on content distribution and interactive learning. In fact, it could turn everything upside down.

At least one institution is building a model that refuses to choose between traditional college and the corporate model. The Washington Monthly profiles Western Governors University, a non-profit, online college with a strong focus on competency-based education and mentor relationships. It's still new, and struggling to improve its graduation rate, but it's model seems to be built for the long run. It's geared toward non-traditional students and focused on degrees for in-demand jobs, like teachers, nurses, and scientists. (One drawback is the lack of liberal arts degrees).

I found this paragraph noteworthy, especially given the reality that 80% of college students in the United States are non-traditional. (Ask your DMACC students some time. I always get about 75% when we discuss this issue). It seems that university education is mostly geared toward traditional students, even though they are the minority. In any event, the article points out that, regardless of our opinions of for-profit colleges, they are right about one thing: non-traditional students can feel neglected:

The education of “nontraditional” students has been a subject fraught with cognitive dissonance in America, where much of the discussion surrounding higher education is unduly preoccupied with matters of prestige and exclusivity. In this context, leaders of for-profit colleges have held up their neglected, underserved student populations as a badge of moral seriousness. “What we do is educate people who would never have a shot, thank you very much,” a former Kaplan executive said in a recent Washington Post article. In effect, the for-profit schools have accused their prestigious critics of looking at the world of working-class, adult students and saying, for all intents and purposes, “Let them eat cake.” And despite their many flaws, the for-profits have a point here. That’s why the country needs more institutions like Western Governors— innovative, low-cost schools offering degrees of demonstrable value—that put both the snobs and the profiteers to shame.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Respecting Goodhart's Law

This Forbes article recommends ELLI, a lifelong learning assessment tool, as a kind of replacement for rigid grading and standardized testing. It argues against the latter by evoking Goodhart's Law, which was new to me:
Respecting Goodhart’s law: The current focus on testing has tended to make test results the goal of the system, rather than a measure. The change in goal means recognizing that a test is only measure. Using tests as the goal infringes Goodhart’s Law: when measure becomes the goal, it ceases to be an effective measure.
The alternative to this kind of testing is a curriculum that inspires lifelong learning:
The goal needs to shift from one of making a system that teaches children a curriculum more efficiently to one of making the system more effective by inspiring lifelong learning in students, so that they are able to have full and productive lives in a rapidly shifting economy.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Friday, September 9, 2011

Pre-Writing, Free-Writing, Re-Writing

I've made up a more succinct, rhyming version of the writing process:

Pre-Writing, Free-Writing, Re-Writing.

I described it to a student on a discussion board like this:

In my mind, there are three stages to writing: pre-writing, free-writing,
and re-writing (they even rhyme). First, collect notes, ideas, thoughts,
scribbles, outlines....a lot junk and stuff. Second, sit down with that material
and hammer out a draft without stopping to think. Just write it all down at once
and don't care about how it sounds or if the "rules" are right. Write so much
that you will have more than enough. Third, after putting it away for awhile,
pull that draft back out and begin cutting out everything that doesn't fit. Cut,
hack, trim, rearrange...keep the best stuff, the essential stuff, the
gold....throw out the ore. Keep the meat, trim the fat.

I find that if I write more than enough, I will increase my percentage of success....If I write 100 pages, I might have 5 awesome pages. If I write only 100 words, I might only have 5 awesome words. It's painful, but true.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Greatest Speech Ever Made

A bit of a mash-up of Charlie Chaplin's celebrated speech at the end of The Great Dictator, a satirical attack on Hitler released in 1940 after Chaplin had started making "talkies." The main character, mistaken for Hitler, gives a rousing speech that is the most sincere moment of the film. The contemporary footage inserted into the video comments on our communication systems and current social problems. It's a strange and beautiful little video that could be used in multiple ways in the classroom and for multiple subjects.

Einstein's Theory of Relativity Explained in Monosyllables

Have you ever wondered what Einstein's Theory of Relativity is all about? Do you tend to think in monosyllables? (If so, "monosyllables" is four syllables too many.)

Check out Dr. Edwin E. Slosson's description of Einstein's Theory of Relativity. It's explained using only words with one syllable.

I plan on showing this to my composition class and discussing issues of audience, context, and how to effectively communicate complex ideas. Slosson's monosyllabic explanation might be useful for science classes as well.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Please, Try to be Useless....

This video illustrates something I've been telling students lately: try to be useless.

That is, sometimes courses of study that seem worthless are actually the most valuable. This goes all the way back to Cardinal Newman's argument in The Idea of a University: there are the useful arts and then there are the liberal arts.

He doesn't mean this in a disparaging way. What is merely useful will not be supremely useful. It is useful to learn how to tie your shoe, but tying your shoe is a skill that has a very narrow use. What happens once everyone switches over to velcro? (I wish!) What happens when the neuroscience facts you memorized freshman year are disproved and replaced by junior year? The facts seemed useful at the time, but now they're useless. The most valuable thing was learning to think, memorize, and apply.

This is what Newman means. It's best to focus on fundamental, underlying elements of learning and self-improvement that can apply to everything. This is why, according to the video above, the seemingly useless study of philosophy is actually supremely useful (Listen, up parents! Do not be afraid when your child declares a philosophy major!) Studying philosophy develops reading, critical thinking, and debating skills. It stretches your mind, makes your a more flexible thinker, and forces you to explore the basic elements of thought. These skills are like basic training that can be applied to anything.

Learning how to think is more important than learning what to think. Process is more important than content. They're both important, no doubt. But more emphasis should be placed on the fundamentals of learning.

No one knows what line of work they'll end up with, when they might switch majors, jobs, or careers. Let the employer do the training. Training is specific to companies, specific to the moment, and is a never-ending process, subject to updates, overhauls, and changes in law. Small potatoes to the life-long learner. We need to create more of those.