Saturday, October 25, 2008

We're so funky and innovative! Um. Except when we are wedded to traditional approaches instead.

Yesterday, as part of a larger event at university, we had a sort of teaching round-table, which was kind of like speed-dating, where people got into groups of three and shared something innovative they'd done in the classroom, then swapped groups and kept doing it until time ran out.

Some funky experiments I heard about (I realise some of these aren't exactly new, but they aren't things I knew were happening at our university, either):

  • peer evaluation
  • self assessment on an honesty system (which of the required tasks did you complete, how much effort did you put in?)
  • research projects in an undergraduate class that led to multiple student-as-first-author publications in top quality journals
  • courses with mixed participants from as disparate fields as engineering, literature, geography, mathematics, fine arts, and physics, where students came up with research questions that could be addressed by all of these disciplines from different perspectives.
  • a course that wasn't. They had one meeting on the first day which paired each student with a researcher (usually a non-teaching academic) and a topic relevant to that researcher's work and the student's interests. The student, using the researcher as a mentor, then had the rest of the semester to put together a conference-style paper, which was shared in a final meeting at the end of the course. This was in a technologies course, and the incentive to do well at the final "conference" was that big-name people from Google and various other high-profile companies attended to hear what the students came up with.
  • free choice of final projects, with the exception that students could not do an essay, exam or traditional presentation. One of the students wrote a full-length musical and recorded his friends performing it; another produced a beautifully illustrated children's book; one created a manga comic with totally professional quality drawings; etc. Admittedly this was for a course where all of these responses to the material totally made sense.
  • total democracy, where students choose meeting times and lengths, assessment types, topics to cover, and where they run the meetings and the class website. This one strikes me as really really risky, but it was done with a post-graduate group in a professional degree, all of whom had strong reasons to make it work. What really blew me away was an email exchange the lecturer showed us. The first email was from a student complaining about group work and how one member of the group wasn't pulling his weight. The reply explained the pedagogical reasons for group work, suggested some strategies for persuading the group member to pull his socks up, and reminded the student that the grading system would allow them to distribute the marks fairly within the groups. The killer: this reply was from a fellow student. The lecturer also noted that a couple of times he got to class very late, to find the students had gotten started, made some real progress, and hardly needed him there at all.
I was pretty excited by some of these ideas (until I remembered that my main teaching context is classes of 120+ unmotivated first-years, with no funding for extra resources or time to develop new strategies or for one-on-one interaction.)

One of the other sessions during this event was about how to create more time in the classroom to trial new ways of learning. The main suggestion was to move more of what we are currently doing online. (Don't get me started about how this doesn't actually GAIN ANYONE more time (since lecturers have to put in more hours to create the online content, and students have to put in more hours to make use of it)).

So then at the end of the event, people were talking about how interesting and useful it had been to hear about everyone's innovations. Then there was general lamenting that we don't have time to meet and discuss this stuff more often.

"Why don't we apply the solutions we were hearing about this morning?" I suggested. "If we don't have time to actually meet and discuss teaching, let's do it online. Even a simple discussion board could be used to swap suggestions for innovative teaching strategies."

Want to guess what responses I got?

"That's easy for people like you to say. You're the Web2.0 generation. We don't do that sort of thing."

"I guess maybe you young enthusiastic teachers have time to look at discussion boards. Me, I'm lucky if I get to read all my email."

"The whole POINT of today is the face-to-face meeting. You can't have social interaction in a virtual space."

So instead it was concluded that, too bad, we just can't do regular discussions about our teaching. No one has time to meet in person, and other options are impractical. Oh well, how sad.

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