Monday, November 16, 2009

The Whole And (the) Some Of The Parts

The last couple of weeks there has been an odd confluence of my regular work and our course. Given that we're doing Senge now and he wants us to look at the whole, I thought it might be useful for the class to view things through my eyes. A nagging question, I'm sure, is why aren't we talking about instructors changing their approach to teaching? What's all the commotion with peer mentoring when it should be the instructor side the of the equation where the real action is?

Most of my regular work deals with the instructor side of the equation. So over the years I've given it a fair amount of thought. In the mid 1990's when I got started and using the Internet to help with teaching was a pretty new concept (though on our Campus we had Plato well before that) there was a pretty naive view (not surprising given how little people understood about the impact of the Internet in general) that the technology itself would create a paradigm shift (got to love that jargon) in learning. The group I got hooked up with, a bunch of grantees from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation grant program on learning at a distance, had some intellectual foundation based loosely on Network Nation (the authors, Roxanne Hiltz and Murray Turoff were among the grantees) but mostly it came from the Sloan grant officer, Frank Mayadas, a former engineer at IBM, who among other things had been one of the drivers on Project Athena. At the time Frank came over to Sloan, IBM had gone through a substantial round of layoffs and one of the big questions was how could these talented employees get re-educated to find fruitful new employment. Because of his engineering background Frank conceived of the online classroom as a bunch of nodes in a network, with each node contributing to the functioning of the whole.

Frank's conception didn't match the face to face classroom at all, at least in my intermediate microeconomics class. So there had to be a reconceptualization of the teaching to make his idea an organic part of the classroom. I soon came to learn that the true power with most innovations is not from the direct impact of the innovation itself, but rather from this reconceptualization, which occurs with some substantial lag after the innovation has been introduced. So in our little unit that supported online learning we developed a mantra - it's not the technology, it's how you use it, something I still believe today. But some of the rest of my thinking has evolved since then. On the faculty rethinking their teaching, where does that come from? The best answer I've come up with is that its not one big gestalt, but rather the instructor's point of view about teaching goes through a gradual change over time, once the instructor comes to the conclusion that part of the job is to learn about what makes teaching effective. In the language of Senge, teaching is an area where the instructor should obtain personal mastery. (There is no metamorphosis otherwise.) This gradual maturation is facilitated by ongoing experiments in method.

So I came to the conclusion that effective teaching involves ongoing experiments of some sort. The experiments need not be drastic, but they do need to reflect the instructors current view of his teaching and where things could be improved. The model I had in mind was a cycle of reflection on past teaching experience, from that generating an experiment to try in the next round of teaching, the experience from trying out that experiment, and then reflection anew. All of this was firmly developed in my thinking before our course was even a rough concept. I'll get back to it in a bit.

What was obvious at the time, however, is that such a cycle of teaching experiments was not the norm for instruction. On the content of a course there might be innovation, with the instructor revising the syllabus from time to time, but on method there really was very little change. For most faculty the technology didn't encourage this sort of experimentation at all, quite the contrary. Faculty had class Web sites because other faculty had class Web sites. Otherwise, there was remarkable inertia. Senge would term college teaching a balancing process.

There are many reasons for this, some of which we've talked about, notably faculty incentives as determined by what factors matter for promotion and tenure, also for salary review. At research universities like ours that depends mostly if not exclusively research output.

But incentives are not the whole story. There are other important factors as well. There is an academic culture that revolves around the research workshop or seminar, a series that promotes the intellectual life in the unit. Papers are presented by their authors (from on Campus or by invited guests) and discussed and debated. Participation in the workshop represents a substantial commitment of time and is one of the main ways faculty learn and keep up with developments n their discipline. There are some tepid attempts at doing something similar for teaching, but participation by the faculty is much lower in those and for many of the participants, the commitment level is less. Mostly, the targeted audience is brand new faculty.

A further factor is the nature of doctoral education, which is in many respects quite like the apprentice model. Doctoral candidates are made in the image of their advisors. So the teaching model doctoral students learn is based their own graduate education. If there is training in undergraduate teaching for the doctoral student, it typically comes from outside the doctoral program. Outside training is valued less, because it is not otherwise part of the culture.

So it is a tough nut to crack to introduce experimental cycles about the process of teaching into the current system. It is something akin to introducing Argyris' Model 2 in the management setting. Indeed, the comparison with Argyris is useful in many respects. The experimentation in teaching would almost certainly move the instruction in the direction of the students and teacher in an ongoing negotiation and away from the notion of the instructor as oracle and the students sitting at the oracle's feet awaiting the wisdom he will spew. If teaching and learning were negotiation of some sort between the participants, undoubtedly it would make teaching a liberal art a la Drucker. That is the direction in which I believe we should head.

But since it is a tough nut to crack, in addition to direct approaches, we should try indirect approaches as well. This gets us closer to what we are actually doing. Several years ago when I first started working on learning technology in large classes, I learned some interesting facts about logistics. The campus has a huge number of undergraduate courses, in excess of 1500 with enrollments at least 10. The size distribution of those enrollments is very skewed. The top 20 or 30 courses in size constitute about 50% of all the enrollments. If you could make a significant impact in those courses, you'd impact the entire student population.

Another factor is even more indirect. Suppose students developed a taste for a negotiated approach to instruction (contrary to the suppositions of the Disengagement Compact). What impact would these student attitudes then have on how upper level, lower enrollment courses are taught. Faculty do try to meet student expectations. So changing those expectations is a potential path toward the desired outcome.

Obviously, this won't happen over night. But I hope it does give you a sense of where all of this is heading.

Then, on the nuts and bolts of our current project, it turns out that about 4 years ago on a campus committee for learning technology, Deanna Raineri (CIO of LAS) and I were pushing Blended Learning pretty hard. We got language in the first version of the Campus Strategic plan on Blended Learning. And we got some funds from the Provost's office ($20K as it ended up, we asked for $60K initially) to initiate some pilots in Blended Learning. By the time the money was awarded I was headed to the College of Business. I agreed to let LAS have the funds because they were more strapped for cash. There were two pilots planned. One in a meteorology course. The other in Anthropology. The latter one stalled because the instructors didn't have the wherewithal to do something. But now we have the pilot with Professor Clancy. She got on board after being made aware of the earlier efforts. So some of my old eggs are coming home to roost, quite a connection for me.

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