Tuesday, May 8, 2012

To The Tight-assed Educators


Education at all levels faces enormous pressure. Lots of people, teachers, parents, students and politicians who have opinions and love to express them have declared education broken. The language of change is often expressed in knowledge and competency terms (world class universities and the urgent need for graduates who are creative, innovative problem solvers).

But this is the best age to live in. And we are only at the beginning. The current generation of students and professors will witness the remaking of education in ways that were completely unimaginable a decade ago.

Change is happening on many fronts: economic, technological, paradigmatic, social, and the natural cycles of change that occur in complex social/technical systems.

There are multiple fronts of disruptive innovation and creative destruction of bad habits in: open education resources; internationalization; partnerships with universities in developing economies; adoption of new technology; and, new pedagogical models.

Early this month, Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology today announced a partnership that will host online courses from both institutions free of charge. The platform dubbed edX has the potential to improve face-to-face classes on the home campuses while giving students around the world access to a blue-ribbon education.

John Boyer teaches a megaclass at Virginia Tech. He delivers a class, Introduction to the Planet to 2,670 students. He is exploring how technology can help engage students in face-to-face courses that enroll from 600 to 3000 students.

Mr. Boyer's "show"  (class) begins on a Monday at 7:58 p.m., when his technical assistant, Katie Pritchard, blasts alerts to 9,000 Facebook and Twitter friends: Live online office hours are starting in 5 minutes! Join the fun.

Mr. Boyer hosts the sessions from his bottom-floor office. Some participants attend in person, some online; some are current students, others former ones who like to check in. The few students in the office follow on laptops and iPads as the instructor interacts with a much larger crowd online. But much of the fun is virtual.

Boyer’s approach? Decentralize the rigid class format by recreating assessment as a game like system in which students earn points for completing assignments of their choosing from many options (1,050 points earns an A, and no tasks, not even exams, are required). Saturate students with Facebook and Twitter updates (some online pop quizzes are announced only on social media). Keep the conversation going with online office hours.

Then there's the pushback from other professors. Can students learn in such a big class? How interactive can it be? Can Mr. Boyer meet all their needs—especially less prepared kids who could fall through the cracks? He thinks the whole notion about smaller classes being superior is poppycock.

Peter E. Doolittle, director of Virginia Tech's Center for Instructional Development and Educational Research. "We're better off learning how to teach well in large classes, rather than trying to avoid them."

Mr. Boyer's students are indeed learning. Midway through the semester, Virginia Tech's Center for Instructional Development and Educational Research tested a sampling of 582 students on the ideas, concepts, and people to be covered in the second half of the "World Regions" course. Students took the test again at the end of the term. Average performance improved from 43.4 percent to 74.3 percent.

At the end of the day, much of Mr. Boyer's effect on students seems beyond quantification. But students make it clear that he has inspired them. Like one who joined the Peace Corps because of the class. Or another who went on to work for an NGO in South Africa.

Adopted from “Supersizing the College Classroom: How one Instructor Teaches Students” By Marc Parry. Published in The Chronicle April 29, 2012

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