Saturday, June 08, 2013

What exactly do students get from coming to my classes?

I will outsource the response to Jeremy:


Ok, seriously, this is, and ought to be, one of the biggest issues of the day in higher education: when there is seemingly no limit on educational materials that are, and will be made, available online, what purpose do we achieve when we require students to attend classes at designated times and places?

I have been struggling with this question ever since I started experimenting with online classes more than a decade ago.  But, not having a critical mass--even a handful--of faculty to think through this means that I fear I am always dangerously flying solo.  Even more, I am afraid that my pedagogical approaches could be so far from the "norm" that it might require students new to me and my classes to dramatically shift their ways of learning, or else we end up with huge mismatches between our respective expectations of what the class times are for.

A few months ago, when my paths crossed with those of the administrator who is responsible for the libraries, I laid out my grand idea of how I would like to use the library.  Get rid of those old books and journals that are pretty much never, ever, used anymore.  Well, get rid as in move them to a storage unit somewhere for safe-keeping.  What a wasteful expenditure of expensive real estate to merely store unused bundles of paper!  Instead, we can put that investment into creative uses that will serve the only reason we have universities in the first place--teaching and learning.

In that vast space, we then set up modular structures with computers connected to the information sources--the open and subscription varieties.  Or, students could bring their own devices too.

I wouldn't even have a syllabus.  Every meeting will be driven by questions from students.  They raise the questions that we would then inquire into.  After all, asking questions is one of the fundamental aspects of critical thinking.  The first step will then be to refine the question itself--a valuable learning exercise.

Then, depending on the content, individually or in teams, students will search the information sources for various pieces that they can assemble to create the answers to the question under scrutiny.  They will then take turns explaining their answers to the class, which will not only be a way to pool together the information, but also a wonderful approach to highlight why some answers might be better than others.

At the end of it all, I will then assign students follow-up material that will help them further clarify for themselves the content.

The next class meeting, another question. And we repeat the process.

Now, this is not the kind of learning that can happen online when Jeremy is home on his bed, can it?

Nor is this kind of learning happening in the classrooms now.  In the current format, we force students to die a painful death by projecting PowerPoint slides.  Slides that sometimes come pre-packaged from the publishers of the textbooks that we force students to purchase, whether or not those books are ever opened. We test students and we are done.  Often those tests are even the atrocious bubbling in of responses to questions that come pre-packaged from the textbook publishers.

By thinking such stuff up, I worry that I am the insane one.  Maybe, I, too, shouldn't even get out of bed!

But then ... if I hadn't gone to my classes, I wouldn't have received this wonderful gift--a bar of delicious chocolate--from "E":


2 comments:

Ramesh said...

Ban Power Point from the classroom. My pet bee in the bonnet is to actually ban Power Point altogether from existence. But that is another matter altogether.

Interesting, your concept of an ideal class. I am uncomfortable with the approach for two reasons - as a student, because of a lack of experience, I was never sure whther the entire gamut of questions I should ask, I would ask. Secondly, my gamut of questions may be quite different from others and how do we get some commoncality.

So I offer some amendments to your approach. The outline of the questions to be asked is something the faculty is better equipped than the student. I wouldn't even mind the broad questions to be posed by the faculty. Learning happens in roughly the same way as you outlined (except that this requires much more work from students and at that age hormones require you attention elsewhere :)) Students have then a number of follow up questions they may wish to explore which they can do so themselves , with guidance from the faculty.

And yes, Its extremely difficult to do all this online. And its also very difficulty to do this with a class size of 300 !

Sriram Khé said...

you seem to always worry about the hormonal aspects of college students, despite the fact that you were an exceptional student during your own younger days ... ;)

yes, your concerns can be easily worked into a new structure. and, yes, it will shift--and rightly so--the burden of learning on to the student. even now i tell students that: when we sign up at a gym and hire a trainer, we are the ones who really have to work to get into the physical shape we want. but, for the mental shape, students can be passive? nope, not in my classes even now--hence, the mismatches already ;)

but, here is the ultimate flaw in my structure: this won't work at all for students who lack a self-motivation to learn. to inquire. what do we do then, right?

but, shouldnt we have that same worry even now? why force students to do time in colleges when they really don't care at all?

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