Archive for ‘Innovation & Change’

November 17, 2012

Experiencing an edX course

by t.e.d.d.y.

Image courtesy of renjith krishnan / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

I decided to take a course with edX provided by Harvard University.  I have already done a free course through Coursera provided by Stanford University and I really liked it.  So this time my expectations were definitely high.  I love this new format universities are using.  It’s free and open to everyone.  You get a certificate of attendance and you learn all kinds of things by choice… isn’t that nice!

Boy, was I disappointed!?!?  Recordings of lectures that went on and on and on.  If I wanted to watch a movie, I’d rent one.  The first recording was 65 minutes long and the second was 63 minutes.  The professor was lecturing a room full of approximately 450 students and someone filmed it.  Then they uploaded these lectures online and Voila! – free online course.  The titles of these videos should have given it away – Lecture 1 and Lecture 1, continued.  Two hours of lecturing?  Come on!  Really?  I mean I do appreciate Harvard opening their door to one their courses and making it available to everyone, but does it really have to be that boring?  I didn’t want to “watch” it for free let alone pay for it.

I thought we were moving away from the lecture format.  I thought that providing a course through this rich online format, there will be a bit more … richness to it.  The first course I took by Stanford also had videos but they were short and full of demonstrations.  After the videos you got to try everything they talked about.  The instructor was prepared to record the videos for an online audience.  And the course had a good flow.  Harvard on the other hand recorded someone walking back and forth in front of a room full of students, demonstrating something on a big screen every once in a while and the flow was very heavy, dragging on and on as people in the audience had questions and comments (which couldn’t be heard in the video by the way).

So here is my (personal) assessment of this course:
1. Lectures
… are boring.  It’s common sense now.  It is the 21st century, not the 19th or even 20th.

2. Audience
… was not considered in the design of this course.  Online audience is different from face-to-face audience.

3. Demonstrations
… were ineffective because the audience was not considered.

3. Instructional design
… was poor to none.  A self-paced online course still needs a good instructional design.  You can’t make people watch 1-hour-video of a lecture and expect that they will learn something.

4. Interaction
… was non-existent or fully passive.  Including pop-up multiple choice questions while the lecture video is going does not provide proper interaction for an online audience.

UPDATE:  This TED talk is directly related to my point of using outdated teaching methods in a modern world of innovation, creativity, and interaction.  Daphne Koller is one of the founders of Coursera and their courses are exactly the opposite of a “lecture”.  I fully enjoyed Coursera’s “Computer Science 101″ course.  Thank you Robert Becker for sending me the link to this talk.

March 17, 2012

Open Learning Sources

by t.e.d.d.y.

Every time I bring up the topic of open-source learning to my students, I get the same question. But why? Why would anyone want to provide anything for free? After all, people spend so much time creating something. And then it just gets out there where other people can access it and what’s more… change it. So what is the point to that?

Well, I joke that they should stop asking and just take advantage of it. But seriously… there are many reasons why scholars and education institutions want to open their research, courses, and training to the public for free. Here are some:

    • To test innovative methodologies and content
    • To attract students to their paid programs by offering free older content
    • To gather marketing data on demographics of interested audience
    • Get feedback from users on content and technical aspects of their programs for further development
    • Pure passion for the subject and sharing it actually is very rewarding for the authors

These are just a few reasons. I’m sure there are many more.

The point here though is, how do we use all that great content to our benefit? It’s really amazing how rich these open-learning environments can be. And they are available for anyone any time.

Below are links to some open-learning programs from a few universities. The list is just a limited list and if you do a more in-depth search on the subject you will find that there are such resources around the globe. These are courses are provided free of charge from universities such as MIT, Stanford, UC Berkeley, and others can be completed by anyone. They are non-credit and do not count towards a diploma from these institutions.

Open Yale Courses

Free courses provided by Yale University.

MIT Open Courseware

Free courses provided by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)

webcast.berkeley

Free courses provided through webcasts by University of California, Berkeley (UC Berkeley)

Carnegie Melon Open Learning Initiative (OLI)

Free courses provided through the OLI by Carnegie Melon University

The Open University (LearningSpace)

European open learning source supported by The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation

Connexions

We heard a TED talk about this project by Rice University.

Coursera

Platform for open courses by University of Michigan, Stanford University, UC Berkeley.

November 14, 2011

Learning at School vs. Learning at Work: Are We Prepared?

by t.e.d.d.y.

Image: Maggie Smith / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

It is clear that no matter how much we try to prepare students to be successful on the workplace, we cannot completely cover everything that they will experience once they start a job.  Simple reason… we can’t read the future yet.  If your students were Grade 9 six or seven years ago, and if they went to college after high-school, they will likely be starting their first “career-oriented” job right about now.  If we think of this time in terms of history of technology inventions and developments, by the time your students graduate college and start working, school will have prepared them for pretty much nothing (or very little) of what they will find on their workplace.  Take a look at this timeline, outlining what happened during these six or seven years since being a Grade 9 student:
(it’s almost 2012 now, but lets look back at 2004 as a starting point)

2004:
Facebook was launched.
Notebook PCs outsell TVs during the holiday season for the first time.
Mozilla Firefox 1.0 is released.

2005:
GoogleMaps is launched
YouTube is founded and comes online Feb 25, 2005.
Microsoft XP Professional is released.
Microsoft releases Xbox 360.

2006:
The blu-ray is first announced and introduced.
Toshiba releases the first HD DVD player in Japan.
Twittr, aka Twitter, launches officially.
Sony releases PlayStation 3.
Nintendo releases Wii.
Microsoft releases Microsoft Windows Vista to corporations.

2007:
Apple introduces iPhone.
Microsoft releases Microsoft Windows Vista and Microsoft Office 2007 to the public.
Google releases Google Streetview.
Google releases Android.
Amazon.com releases the first Kindle.

2008:
RIM named “Canada’s Top 100 Employers”

2009:
Facebook (launched in 2004) overtakes MySpace in Internet traffic.
Microsoft released the Bing search engine.
Gmail gets out of beta and released to the public.

2010:
Apple introduces the iPad.
Apple introduces iPhone 4.
Amazon reports that it is selling more Kindle books than hardcover books.
RIM announces the BlackBerry PlayBook tablet computer.

2011:
Microsoft acquires Skype.
Apple introduces Apple 4S.
RIM lays off 2000 people – the biggest lay-off in its history.

Image: Michal Marcol / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

So in a nutshell, we couldn’t have prepared our students for all of the above.  We couldn’t have taught them about social media, Internet bullying, mLearning, etc.  And considering the timeline of all events, it was impossible for us to predict all these changes.  And naturally we cannot predict what changes will happen six years from now.  That’s a normal thing and shouldn’t be a reason for concern.  Until we actually learn how to use a crystal ball, we have nothing to worry about. (So educators, please stop worrying about not being able to catch up with technology :) )

However, there is another thing we don’t prepare our students for, which is quite different from what they experience at school: learning on the job.  Yes, we talk about life-long learning and constant exploration and curiosity.  However, the learning process that happens at work, is very different and could be quite challenging if one is not prepared.  When our students graduate school, college, university, they are coming out of a system which encourages a different type of learning than the one at a workplace.  Below are some characteristics of “learning at school” and “learning at work”.  While these aren’t set rules of how learning happens at both places, they represent a general picture of what happens.  There are always exceptions of course.

LEARNING @ SCHOOL LEARNING @ WORK
Follow a lesson plan Often there is no plan
Learner-focused and teacher-driven Learner-driven and company-focused
Learn then apply Learn as you apply
Individual learning style in your own pace Individual learning style in the company’s pace
Talk to go-to person (teacher) then self-explore Self-explore then talk to go-to person (mentor)
Learn for a test/exam/graduation standards (fixed quantity of material) Learn continuously (indefinite quantity of material and knowledge)
Team-work is preferable but not always a requirement Team-work is preferable AND a requirement
Change is usually minimal Change is usually constant
Learning causes change Change causes learning
Single source of assessment (teacher) Multiple sources of assessment (managers, peers, etc.)
Steady predictable learning curve (due to following a prescribed curriculum) Dynamic unpredictible learning curve (no curriculum)

Have you noticed other differences?  Please add them to the list.

So how do we prepare our students?  Are we prepared ourselves?

One way is incorporating bits of “work” learning into collaborative projects.  In one of my courses, I set a deadline (for fun) to complete a task in class.  The results didn’t have to be perfect and the activity was not graded.  In a very short time, my students had to work together (small groups) and find out as much information as possible on a topic.  When the deadline was over, they had to drop everything they were doing and attend a “meeting” where they shared what they had achieved.  The exercise was fun because the speed of work kept everyone going and motivated to finish.  There was no competition (e.g. which group collected the most information).  It was a fun thing to do.  When sharing, everyone provided their point of view and allowed for other groups to contribute.  The end result was great.  The exercise not only taught them what a tight deadline is, but also revealed that you don’t have to have perfect results to be able to share them with the team.  The team is what makes the end result… “perfect”.  Also, my students all noticed that if you set unrealistic goals for yourself (too much work in too little time), it can be quite challenging.  Finding ways to overcome these challenges or communicate their concerns openly is extremely important.  And that’s exactly what happens in the work place.  If you are not able to communicate properly and assess your abilities fairly, you keep saying “yes, I can do it” and then end up with too much on your plate and a whole lot of stress.  Sometimes on the job, you have to learn something very fast because you don’t have all the time in the world to get up to speed.  This is a task that may cause a lot of stress.  If you don’t know how to handle it, it could lead to the natural resentment and disappointment.  That’s why addressing the issue of different learning environments with our students is important and will help them become successful and more adaptable in their work.

November 13, 2011

Tech startups educators will love

by t.e.d.d.y.

Tech startup companies are known to be the sources of innovation.  As much as educators dread the “tech” word, they will like the concept behind the following startups which followed trends and needs in education and addressed them.

What is Skillshare? from Skillshare on Vimeo.

“Learn new skills.  Share new skills.”
Skillshare is a community marketplace to learn anything from anyone. We believe that everyone has valuable skills and knowledge to teach and the curiosity to keep learning new things. This means our neighbourhoods, communities, and cities are really the world’s greatest universities. Our platform helps make the exchange of knowledge easy, enriching, and fun.

Kaggle In Class

Kaggle is an arena where you can match your data science skills against a global cadre of experts in statistics, mathematics, and machine learning. Whether you’re a world-class algorithm wizard competing for prize money or a novice looking to learn from the best, here’s your chance to jump in and geek out, for fame, fortune, or fun.

  • Branch

Branch is a group blogging/debate platform.

Read about more innovative startups here.

November 7, 2011

Where is the next innovation in education going to come from?

by t.e.d.d.y.

Image: nokhoog_buchachon / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Because I love innovation and going against the norms…

I always expect the innovative approach to training and education to come from … well, education.  However, the latest trend in training methodology comes from the corporate world.  Perhaps it’s because the pace there is quite faster than it is in schools and universities, for example.  Or maybe corporations are more open to risk.  Whatever it is… changes are happening.  And because they are coming from the corporate world, this is a bigger need for a change at schools/universities.  After all, they are preparing the future workforce.

More and more companies emphasize on the social element of training.  If we have to look at a breakdown, informal learning happens 80% of the time, and the rest 20% is dedicated to the conventional model of courses and workshops supported by a self-paced element.  The big change here is in the perception of what is effective and what is less so.  Apparently, the social informal type of learning is way more effective than asking people (new employees, customers, partners, etc.) to sit down and read for days so they can get up to speed.  Mentoring is a huge part of it.  Pairing people and even teams to work and learn together is crucial for quick learn-on-the job experience.  But it is also impacting morale, team work, communication… in a good way.  Actually, the impact is great.

The sceptics would ask if it’s possible to measure success of such training model.  The answer is yes.  There are multiple metrics that one can apply.  From surveys and satisfaction reports, to setting assignments the learner needs to complete.  For example, in one company, the team lead requested that all new people who start at the company must attend courses and workshops, read documentation and participate in group discussions and meetings for the first half of their first day on the job.  By the end of the day, they were supposed to create a scenario or a solution to a real problem they learned about during that day.  In addition, they had to come up with a plan on how they would train the next new employees who come on board.  The solutions and proposals were presented to senior staff and managers and evaluated on the spot.  That evaluation does not mean to praise or punish.  It has two roles: provide constructive feedback to the new employees on areas they can improve; and it also demonstrates weaknesses in the training material which might have caused confusion or difficulty for the new person to learn.  The goal of the exercise is to improve the learning environment and support new people on their path to life-long learning.

So the metrics may not be quizzes and tests… it’s a bit more creative than that.  Imagine the amount of solutions companies can have that new people have suggested based on what they see at the company.  Maybe this new employee will identify a problem the company didn’t know they had.  Either way… it’s a win-win situation.

From an education point of view, this model looks very ambitious.  I understand that this would be difficult to apply in the traditional sense of a learning environment.  However, it pushes us to think in a direction very different from what we have now.  It makes us evaluate the effectiveness of what we are comfortable with.  The easiest thing to do is get everyone to do a test, sum up their results, and give them a grade.  If that’s the easiest way though, wouldn’t our learners take the easiest way to prepare for that kind of assessment too?  For example, if I am a learner who knows that at the end of my semester, all I have to do is show up and write a test to get a grade, I would not really care about the content of the course too much.  I know that no matter how much I study, eventually it will come down to three things:

  • my test-taking skills
  • a little bit of luck
  • a little bit of knowledge

So why should I bother remembering or learning any data if I have strong test-taking skills?  I’d read the material once, maybe twice.  But only to get a good idea of what the course is about.  On test day, though, it will not matter too much.  All I need is to pass the course.

Now imagine, I have to actually come up with a plan to impress my instructor and fellow classmates.  I know that there will be no test at the end.  I know that my grade really depends not only on my knowledge and what I have learned, but also the effort I put into preparing for this course.  Imagine that the response from my peers will affect my grade.  I know all this.  What would be my plan of attack?  First of all, the project/assignment will involve a lot of critical thinking on my part.  I need to come up with clear enough message to get everyone on board with me and get them to support my idea.  Then, before presenting or submitting, I’d get some feedback from peers just to make sure I am being understood.  I’d get feedback from other instructors too and see what they have to say.  Then I’ll put it together.  On “assessment” day, I will have to defend my idea and impress my audience.  The feedback I receive will not be critical and putting me down.  It will be constructive and encouraging with very sound reasoning behind it.  Even if I have to go back to the drawing board and start from scratch, then I know I didn’t do something right and I have to make it right.

Now that’s a quite interactive way to evaluate students’ achievement and involve everyone in the process.  Students will benefit not only by being able to receive feedback and implement it in their work, but they will also learn how to give feedback.  This is an exercise for the whole group.  It’s not easy to provide constructive feedback.  And how else would students learn how to do it?  It’s not enough to just say you like or don’t like something.  How about the “why”?

October 25, 2011

Google SketchUp in the Classroom

by t.e.d.d.y.

I found this really interesting video from the Google SketchUp site on how it’s used in the classroom.  Teachers use the tool in their lesson plans to enhance their teaching and engage their students.  It encourages students to be creative and fully involved in the lesson.

Check it out:

September 26, 2011

Studying and teaching for the test: Students’ and Teachers’ worst nightmare

by t.e.d.d.y.

Traditional or the way I like to call them “military” types of assessment have no place in an education system of the 21st century.  Are we still studying for the test?  That’s because our teachers are teaching for the test.  Teachers in the U.S. (in North America in general but mostly in the U.S. especially after NCLB was implemented) are held accountable for low test scores of their students.  So what do we have here?  Teacher who sneaks answers to students only to get good evaluations on their own work and get a pay raise based on these results.  How sad is that?!

Test scores mean that you can or cannot take a test.  They don’t represent your knowledge or understanding of a subject matter.  I have said this a thousand times.  Having worked in the test prep industry, I know that a test is taken not because you necessarily learn the content covered by the test, but by learning the tricks of test-taking.  Believe or not, it’s called “methodology of test-taking”.  Now that’s pathetic.  Who says for example that people with higher IQ are smarter than people with lower IQ?  The creator of the IQ test, Alfred Binet, warned that measuring someone’s intelligence is not a linear process and it cannot be represented by a single number.  In other words, Binet insisted that intelligence does not have a fixed quantity and it can also improve or deteriorate depending on many other factors.  Unfortunately this part of this explanation behind the infamous IQ test were ignored.  Even today, based on an IQ test, a lot of states make decisions on whether to convict someone based on their IQ test score.  How ridiculous is this?!

Anyway… before I go off topic… the bottom line is, studying for the test is wrong and cannot lead to anything good or productive… like learning for example.  Studying does not necessarily lead to learning.  There are many examples of why tests have negative effects on learning.  And there are examples of why having no tests leads to better results.  I was reading an article about the education system in Finland and I was amazed.  Finland has no tests for its students and teachers and is rated among the highest achieving countries on innovation, entrepreneurship, and creativity.  Why is that?  What’s the magic formula that got them there?  Harvard professor Tony Wagner explains it like this:

There is no domestic testing except a very quiet auditing program to test demographic samples of kids; not for accountability, not for public consumption, and not for comparison across schools. The fascinating thing is that because they have created such a high level of professionalism, they can trust their teachers. Their motto is “Trust Through Professionalism.” The difference between the highest performing school in Finland and the lowest performing school in Finland is less than four percent, and that’s without any testing at all.

Can you believe this is actually working?  Not only is it working, it’s making the education system in this country flourish.  It’s making its teachers and students flourish.  The focus is on teachers’ professional development and trust.  Every teacher in Finland must have a Master’s degree.  For every ten applicants to become teachers, only one gets to go into a classroom.  This high expectation but also flexibility has turned the teaching profession into one of the most prominent in the country.  Professor Wagner continues:

So they began in the 1970s by completely transforming the preparation and selection of future teachers. That was a very important fundamental reform because it enabled them to have a much higher level of professionalism among teachers. Every teacher got a masters degree, and every teacher got the very same high quality level of preparation.

So what has happened since is that teaching has become the most highly esteemed profession. Not the highest paid, but the most highly esteemed. Only one out of every 10 people who apply to become teachers will ultimately make it to the classroom. The consequence has been that Finland’s performance on international assessments, called PISA, have consistently outranked every other western country, and really there are only a handful of eastern countries that are educating with the same results.

Professor Tony Wagner narrated a documentary on the education system in Finland called “The Finland Phenomenon: Inside the World’s Most Surprising School System” and is the author of a book “The Global Achievement Gap” (find a link and full title in the BookBuzz page of this blog).  Professor Wagner says that Finland has “defined professionalism as working more collaboratively”.  Teachers actually have time during the day to work together and constantly improve their skills, curriculum, and lessons.

So why can’t we take this lesson and move away from the “military” 19th century type of teaching and teacher preparation?  Tests are not the bottom line of who our students and teachers are.  Giving a raise to a teacher because her students scored high on a standardized multiple-choice test is so wrong that it is beyond anything natural that might happen in a school.  I may sound like a broken record but I will quote Sir Ken Robinson here.  He says that schools should go back to a more agricultural model of functioning and move away from the industrial model; to a customized model and move away from the fast food model.  They should create the circumstances under which students and teachers can “grow” organically.  Just as you provide water and sun for the crops to grow, schools should nourish students and teachers to reach their potential and be motivated to create and love what they do.  I believe Finland’s education system has done just that.

UPDATE from the news:  Here’s what happens when college admission depends on a test score.  When colleges only need the score, then students care only about… the score. –“7 Long Island Students Charged in SAT Scheme”

UPDATE: I found this excellent interview with Dr. Ben Levin, University of Toronto on the value of standardized tests and the differences between the US and Canadian education systems.

UPDATE: Edutopia’s article on how technology will help move away from a test-driven curriculum: “Critical and creative thinking cannot, and will not, happen in our schools unless we unshackle our teachers from the confines of our test-driven curriculum.”

September 19, 2011

“Doing the same thing and expecting different results is a sign of insanity” A. Einstein

by t.e.d.d.y.

The big talk of the day is change the way we teach, change the way we communicate with our students, change school policies, change standards, change funding, etc.  It’s all about change these days.  However, no matter how much change we aim for, we can’t achieve different results if we keep doing the same thing.  We still teach in the same classrooms we studied in.  Nothing has changed in the typical classroom since I was in Grade 1 – long time ago.  It’s still the same classroom today.  Rows of desks, the blackboard is now a white board, everyone is facing the front of the room where the teach stands (or sits), same rules apply for not getting up and moving, not talking, being quiet, pay attention, etc.  It’s exactly the same as it was created hundreds of years ago.  So why do we expect students to be motivated and to change their attitude if we are not changing the environment they learn in?

September 12, 2011

Looking for funding for your next education project? Talk to the crowd!

by t.e.d.d.y.

Crowdfunding: What it is and how it can help educators?

What is Crowdfunding?
According to crowdsourcing.org, crowdfunding is “an approach to raising capital for new projects and businesses by soliciting contributions from a large number of stakeholders”. Wikipedia defines crowdfunding as “the collective cooperation, attention, and trust by people who network and pool their money and other resources together, usually via the Internet, to support efforts initiated by other people and organizations”. In other words, crowdfunding provides a creative platform for you to get that brilliant project idea become reality by presenting it to interested people who will contribute financially to it. In short, this is an opportunity to spread the word, find sponsors, and complete your project.

The idea is really useful in education as budget is always limited especially to extra curricular projects and activities. There are many websites offering a platform for crowdfunding and I will mention a few of them below.

Choosing the type of funding depends on a few things:
1. Personal preference
You need to decide which one appeals to you the most

2. Scope of project
Some platforms are for small projects only so do your research before you post yours. If you need more substantial funding, posting on a website for small projects may not be a successful venture.

3. Type of project
Some websites are focused specifically on the arts. Others focus on business startups. You may find some to be more general than that or perhaps specifically dedicated to education. Again, if you do your research, you will find the right one for you.

So what are the types of funding? (from Crowdsourcing.org)

  • Donations, Philanthropy, Sponsorship

This type of finding does not require any return on investment and stakeholders do not expect financial gains by offering to help.

  • Lending

This is quite self-explanatory. People lend you money to complete your project and they expect you to return it.

  • Investment in exchange for equity, profit, or revenue sharing

In other words, this is sort of a barter. For example, if you invent a brand new instructional tool for teachers which has the potential to become super popular and you expect your profit to be millions of dollars, your investors may ask for a share of that profit in return.

How does crowdfunding apply in education and how can educators benefit from it? It’s simple. From school-wide projects to classroom projects, you can list anything you need extra funding for and see what you get. There are certain criteria, of course, on what constitutes a good project. Every crowdfunding website has terms and conditions as well as rules on how to present your project so it looks attractive. Whether it is an exhibition you are organizing and need to rent a hall, or it’s a field trip you want to take your student to… try the crowdfunding websites to get some additional funding. A great advantage to such an undertaking is that you can make it a class project and involve your students in it. you can literally watch the pledge grow by the numbers and your students will like the positive outcome. Once your project is posted, you can notify friends, family and coworkers about it and they can add money as well. If you decide to go with the donation type of funding, you can think of a gift you can mail to all your donors – a handmade “thank you” card made by your students, or something similar. It’s a nice gesture and you will teach your students a few lessons along the way.

Let’s take a look at some of the websites that offer crowdfunding:

Funding4Learning
This is a platform specializing in education projects. It was mentioned as an innovative idea on TED. Here’s how the creators describe their service:

Funding4Learning is a new and revolutionary way for people around the world to fund their studies and educational campaigns. F4L provides a simple online platform where anybody can raise money fast, with no hassles, and with a global reach.

Sponsume
This website is specializing in the arts, education, technology, writing, social enterprise, etc.

Thousands of people visit Sponsume each week. This is your chance to show your project to the world, gather support, and raise the funds you need to make it happen.

Kickstarter
Usually for small businesses, art, theatre, design, food, technology, writing & publishing, games, etc.

Kickstarter is a new way to fund creative projects. We believe that: 1) A good idea, communicated well, can spread fast and wide. 2) A large group of people can be a tremendous source of money and encouragement. Kickstarter is powered by a unique all-or-nothing funding method where project must be fully-funded or no money changes hands.

IndieGoGo
This website offers project funding for writers, school builders, filmmakers, crafters, community builders, singers, animators, inventors, etc.

IndieGoGo is an easy online platform for anybody in the world to raise more money, from more people, fast. With IndieGoGo you can turn your passion into a funding campaign, promote your idea, engage a fan base, and get funded. We provide all the tools you need to build a campaign and share it with the world.

This is just a very short list of crowdfudning websites. You can explore more and find the one right for you.
Best of luck with your projects!

September 7, 2011

A new book from BC professors sheds light on the new generation of university students: valid points or a one-way story?

by t.e.d.d.y.

I found this article about a book, “Campus Confidential: 100 Startling Things You Don’t Know about Canadian Universities” by Dr. Ken Coates, Dean of the Faculty of Arts at University of Waterloo, Ontario, and William Morrison, history professor at University of Northern British Columbia.  In the book the two scholars examine the   current state of Canadian universities and pressing issues faced by the institutions.  In particular, they bring up a point that students nowadays have changed and their expectations of universities are very high without actually wanting to work hard for their grades.

The authors explain that there is a big change the way students perceive universities.  “The authors blame societal permissiveness, child-centred educational and parenting styles, overwhelming materialism, video games, sexualized media and the guilt of two-income families. It’s not all bad, the authors write, because these new students are also more assertive and more confident than previous generations and not intimidated by professors or any adults.

I don’t necessarily agree with all that view.  I listened to an interview with Dr. Coates in which he also says that students nowadays don’t read books or articles and professors are lucky if they get them to read one article out of 5 mandatory readings.  While I think this is definitely a negative trend on its own, when put into perspective, there is a good reason for it.  Most lectures in universities are older and not always updated with the latest information.  Students prefer to do their own research on a topic than wait for a professor to provide the info.  That leads us to the idea that the lecture type of teaching is long gone and the professor/teacher is not the know-it-all source of information in the classroom.  Even prof. Coates says that we need to change the way we teach.  The university should become the place for exploration and excitement about knowledge. Teaching material should change towards a competency based knowledge rather than an abstract old-fashioned type of knowledge which is static and never changes with the world.

I always get a bit sceptical when teachers give advice on how to make students focus more.  An argument that prof. Coates makes is about the attention span of students and how they prefer to use their laptops during class to update their Facebook status rather than listen to what the professor has to say.  The reason I am sceptical about such remarks is that they show a certain degree of insecurity about those teachers.  So the only way you can make someone pay attention to you is if you forbid them to do anything else but listen to you.  That’s a bit of an artificially created learning environment.  The fact that students are looking at you and not their computer does not mean they are listening to you.  So banning computers from the classroom in order to get everyone’s eyes on you will not bring students’ interest in your lecture up.  On the contrary, they will be looking at you thinking about what they want to write on Facebook once your boring class is over.  So instead of blaming computers for the lack of interest, how about we blame our teaching method?  One thing that prof. Coates points out in his interview is that he scrapped all his lectures for this year and he will work with the students to re-create the lectures together with them.  He suggests that setting the topic and getting students to research and contribute with information through discussion and group participation is a way better teaching method, which enhances learning, than sitting everyone down in a quiet lecture room and reading your lecture notes to them.  And I agree with him.

More on the topic:

Interview with prof. Ken Coates, Dean of Faculty of Arts, University of Waterloo, Ontario

News article from the Vancouver Sun on “Campus Confidential”.

“Campus Confidential: 100 Startling Things you Don’t Know about Canadian Universities” from Amazon.ca

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