One key theme coming through from comments at the Chronicle is what I perceive as an unhealthy cynicism that prevents many people from listening to students and faculty on the front lines (the ones taking redesigned courses) on their own merits.
Sunday’s post highlighted two segments of students describing their experiences with re-designed courses, but we also need to hear directly from faculty. Too often the public discussion of technology-enabled initiatives focus on the technology itself, often assuming that the faculty involved are bystanders or technophiles. But what about the perspectives of faculty members – you know, those who are in the classrooms working with real students – on what challenges they face and what changes are needed from an educational perspective? There is no single perspective from faculty, but we could learn a great deal through their unique, hands on experiences.
Consider the the specific case of why students might need to work at their own pace.
The first example is from a faculty member at Middlebury College describing the need for a different, more personalized approach for his geographic information system (GIS) course.
Jeff Howarth: And what I would notice is that there would be some students who would like me to go a little bit faster but had to wait and kind of daydream because they were just waiting. And then there were some students that desperately wanted me slow down. Then you get into that kind of slowest-car-on-the-freeway, how-fast-can-you-really-go type of thing. So, I would slow down, which would lose part of the group.
Then there would be some folks that probably would want me to slow down but would never ask because they don’t want to call attention to themselves as being the kind of—the slow car on the freeway.
Michael Feldstein: At this point, Jeff realized that even his small class might not be as personalized as it could be with the support of a little more technology.
Jeff Howarth: What I realized is that, if I just started packaging that instruction, the worked example, I could deliver the same content but allow students to first—if I made videos and posted it on something like YouTube, I was putting out the same content, but students could now watch it at their own pace and in the privacy of being able to go as slow as they need to without the social hang-ups of being considered different.
Students could now watch it at their own pace and … and go as slow as they need to without the social hang-ups of being considered different. So, that was really the first step of—I did all of this, and then I told another colleague in languages what I was doing. And he said, “Well, that’s called ‘flipping the classroom.’” And I thought, “OK.” I mean, but that’s not really why. I did it without knowing that I was flipping the classroom, but then that’s how it happened.
Compare this description with an example from an instructor at Essex County College teaching developmental math.
Pamela Rivera: When I was teaching the traditional method, I’ll have students coming in and they didn’t know how to multiply. They didn’t know how to add and subtract. Rarely would those students be able to stay throughout the semester, because after the third—no, even after the second week, everyone else was already in division and they’re still stuck.
And the teacher can’t stop the class and say, “OK, let’s continue with multiplication,” because you have a syllabus to stick to. You have to continue teaching, and so those students will be frustrated, and so they drop the class. The Teacher can’t stop the class…because you have a syllabus to stick to.
At the same time, you had students who—the first couple of weeks they’ll be extremely bored because they already know all of that. And so, unfortunately, what would happen is eventually you would get to a point in the content that—they don’t know that, but because they have been zoning out for weeks, they don’t get that “OK, now, I actually have to start paying attention.” And so, yes, they should have been able to do that, but they still are not very successful because they were used to not paying attention.
Remarkably Similar Descriptions
Despite these two examples coming from very different cases, the actual descriptions that faculty offer on the need for course designs that allow students to control their own pacing are remarkably similar. These isolated examples are not meant to end debate on personalized learning or on what role technology should play (rather they should encourage debate), but it is very useful to listen to faculty members describe the challenges they face on an educational level.