Monday, March 30, 2015

How the iPad is Changing the Way We Learn

by Rhiannon Williams

“What’s wrong with education cannot be fixed with technology. No amount of technology will make a dent.” So said Steve Jobs in 1996 - during an interview in which the Apple co-founder claimed the bureaucratic, political and sociopolitical problems facing the education sector were beyond technology’s capacity to fix.

In the 19 years since Jobs uttered those words, the issues weighing heavily on the shoulders of educators, schools, universities and other educational facilities have undoubtedly multiplied. But so too have the ways in which technology can be harnessed to address some of the tensions within teaching and learning.

VoksenUddannelsesCenter Syd, or VUC for short, is one of 29 adult education programmes across Denmark, situated across the four towns of Haderslev, Aabenraa, Tonder and Sonderborg. The state-funded centres use legislative frameworks issued by the Ministry of Education, and are run by principals who answer to the centre board. The programmes originally issued students with MacBooks before plumping for iPads to replace traditional textbooks and paper-based essays two years ago, in a bid to help educate those who may struggle with more conventional means of teaching.
The Haderslev branch is a beautiful glass and bleached wood Scandi-cool building overlooking a calm body of water built 18 months ago at a cost of around 200m Danish krone (£20m). It caters for around 2,200 full-time students (around 8,000 in total, including distance learners as far afield as China and Kenya), aged between 16 and 60 over two years.

VUC centres aim to help those who may have struggled to learn within more traditional, rigid teaching systems, alongside adults wishing to gain new skills later in life, with an aim to equipped them with the qualifications necessary for attending university.
"Many of our students are dropouts from other education systems and they don't believe in themselves,” managing director Hans Jørgen Hansen tells me. “They think they are stupid or not able to learn. A really important job for our teachers is to recreate their curiosity, so they remember it is good to be curious. They need to feel like they are able to learn, and that they’re succeeding at learning.”
Rebuilding the students’ self-confidence in their own abilities and encouraging a different form of learning is at the heart of the centres’ ethos. Haderslev is divided into four kinds of new-age classrooms; quiet, presentation, dialogue and group rooms, designed for individual or mass-studies. Students quietly troop between the tasteful, open spaces equipped with flatscreen displays on walls and tables, glass-walled units and communal pod areas known affectionately as pumpkins, where groups sit in a circular formation around a multi-screened central unit.

The 'pumpkin' units encourage pupils to sit in a circular formation
Beyond lockers for their coats against the bitter Danish wind, the building bears closer resemblance to a successful start-up’s achingly hip headquarters than even the most switched-on school. The building has been designed to act as a local community hub, where members of the public are welcome to eat at the canteen among the students, and local groups are encouraged to book out the halls and other facilities. The day I visit, a local running club has booked to use an auditorium for a meeting that evening. And as all coursework, assignments and communication is conducted via the Cloud and internet, the only bit of kit students are required to carry is their issued iPad, which they can choose to buy outright after six months for a low sum.
This deconstruction of traditional learning environments which are not necessarily working for all involved is essential, Mr Hansen maintains. “We believe in our teachers’ ability to cope with the fact we don’t have normal classrooms; we didn’t feel a need for them.”

Mr Hansen pulls up an image of a 21st century classroom for me to look at on his iPad; an indifferent-looking boy leaning back on his plastic chair in a row of similarly apathetic pupils, the teacher out of shot. The picture disappears, replaced by a Victorian era Danish school hall. The children still sit in rows, their blank faces turned towards the front of the room where the teacher is presumably standing.

"The two are almost the same - we're really not seeing a lot of changes in education,” he says. “We speak about it and have visions about it, but we're not doing it. In reality you will see the same picture in many schools. The students are not learning a lot in that way. You can't just tell teachers to teach in another way, you have to change the structure of the spaces where the learning is going on.”

A key investment in alternative learning is the centre’s commitment to training its staff to become iPad-savvy. Of the 200 teachers, 16 are now part-time iBook authors, creating interactive textbooks and guides using Apple’s iBooks Author software for use in lessons and aiding the students making their own. They work with a talented team of copywriters, proofreaders, translators, video-producers and multi-media designers to create the most professional-looking content possible, and whom are aiming to publish some 400 downloadable iBooks by January 2017.
Completing interactive tasks within iBooks, teacher and part time author Klaus Vejlgaard Just says, helps shape the students from passive observers into active participants and producers.

“I want to have active students, not ones who passively receive education,” he says. “They create their own content from our fieldwork, including films and ebooks. It sharpens the focus, and forces them to reflect on what they have learned.”
Mr Hansen agrees. “You can be a very, very good teacher, but if I give Klaus a traditional classroom with no ICT, he would teach in a traditional way - the space and structure decides that.”

Jobs wasn’t wrong when he poked holes in the education system, or even when he condemned the majority of what is studied in school as “completely useless.” “But,” he continued, “Some incredibly valuable things you don’t learn until you’re older — yet you could learn them when you’re younger.” Perhaps the sooner we all start thinking differently, the more we stand to learn.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Should Learning Technology Replace Learning Cursive in Schools?

By Sean Scarpiello

As computers and tablets quickly make their way into the classroom, the need to learn about these growing technologies is rising quickly. Yet as teachers try to integrate more technology into the classroom, there is a limited amount of time during the school day, so some subjects need to be removed  to allow more time for technology. There has recently been debate among many grade school educators to reduce the amount of time being spent teaching and practicing cursive as it is becoming obsolete. As adults, we all remember spending countless hours in second and third grade perfecting our cursive. As society moves towards a more technology driven world, teachers are seriously considering cutting cursive from the curriculum. Educators are not calling to question the importance of cursive, but some feel that it isn’t worth teaching when there is so much to learn using technology.

First, the major problem that arises with teaching cursive is the opportunity cost. Teachers often ask, “What other subject can I be teaching during the time that it takes to teach second graders cursive.” This question arises in  many teachers because there is a large chunk of class time dedicated to teaching cursive. Students are practically  relearning the alphabet in a more fancy and complicated style by learning cursive. This means they need to spend a lot of time constantly writing out their cursive over and over again. In my schooling, cursive was practiced first thing each morning for about an hour over a time span of about three to four months. Each hour  dedicated to cursive can add up over time and this time could have easily been used elsewhere.

For many teachers, the instruction of cursive is seen as a dying art as technology is quickly taking over. Many argue that people never use cursive to write letters as email has taken over. Even in the workplace, documents are typically typed  out and if not people just print because it is easier. Therefore, it seems preposterous that schools spend a lot of time on cursive when it is used little, if at all, in the future. This especially holds true when teachers notice that time teaching cursive can be used to time teaching students how to use computers and other technology. In the long run, it would definitely serve students better if they were taught to use the computer and type faster rather than learning to write in cursive.

On the other hand, there are still many arguments for keeping cursive in schools. For one, students need to learn it for writing their signatures in the professional world and even in their daily lives as adults. Cursive has always been regarded as a professional  writing style and practiced by well-educated individuals in society. If there is an end to cursive, some think ,many people would come across as being flat out dumb. Even today, too many students do not know how to professionally sign a letter or write out their signature. It is still important to not completely cut cursive from curricula.

While cursive really cannot be cut from the curricula altogether, the teachers’ best option for students to learn this writing style is to assign cursive as homework. Also, cursive could be done independently over the summer. This would give teachers more time in the classroom to teach other important subjects that may be overlooked when trying to squeeze cursive into a full curriculum. An advantage to cursive is how easy it is to learn and can  be learned  by students independently. In fact students could even utilize technology to learn cursive and accomplish both types of learning concurrently.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Conquering the GMAT

By Chrissy Gomez


Sunday, March 1, 2015

Learning From MOOCs

By Marie Norman

I’ve been working recently with a faculty member who is turning his thermodynamics course into a massive open online course, or MOOC. Working on this project, I’ve noticed that MOOCs have distinctive features that can help instructors avoid certain instructional pitfalls while simultaneously steering them in the direction of others.

Paying attention to these features in the context of MOOCs, I think, can help us be aware of -- and avoid -- the same problems in other teaching situations, online or face-to-face.

Because MOOC audiences are by definition large, they require faculty to design their courses for the broadest possible audience. This includes students without deep background knowledge in the subject area and students with diverse (and often weak) motivations for taking the course. Having to consider such a broad audience pushes faculty in directions that can help them overcome four common instructional problems.

Expert blind spot. EBS refers to the tendency we have as experts in our disciplines to move so quickly and intuitively through the familiar terrain of our subject matter that we omit important information, skip key steps and fail to point out critical connections. Instructor EBS can leave students, as relative novices, struggling to keep up. In over 10 years in faculty development, I’ve come to regard EBS as enemy number one in teaching.
MOOCs, because of their broad audience, compel instructors to use simpler language and proceed more systematically through content material. By actively working against EBS, the MOOC approach is likely to serve students in other kinds of courses as well.

Takeaway: As an expert in your discipline, you’re subject to expert blind spot. It comes with the territory. But you can consciously work against EBS by developing the habit of asking yourself: Have I left out any important information, connections or steps that students need to make sense of or apply this material?

Prior knowledge gaps. To learn, students have to connect what they’re learning to what they already know. If there are significant gaps between what the instructor assumes students know coming into a course and what they actually know, it can seriously undermine students’ learning, not to mention their motivation. Yet we often overestimate students’ prior knowledge, if we give it much thought at all. Targeting a MOOC audience can help keep this tendency in check, if only by cautioning us to begin at the beginning, define our terms and (perhaps most importantly) clarify the knowledge and skills we expect students to have coming into the course.

Takeaway: It’s important to articulate what you expect your students to know coming into a course, including specific prerequisite skills (e.g., solving differential equations, searching academic journals) and knowledge (basic geography, Newton’s laws). If a large number of students lack these skills, take time to address the gaps. Also be sure not to create new gaps by failing to define terms or moving too fast through complex material.
Content overload. A common mistake in teaching is to assume that the more we cover, the more students learn. But all evidence in cognitive science points to the opposite conclusion. As Herb Simon, the father of cognitive psychology, frequently noted, coverage is the enemy of deep learning. It’s far better to cover less content with more opportunities for practice and feedback.

MOOCs, because of their size, generally don’t provide the necessary practice and feedback opportunities for deep learning. However, because they tend to be shorter than full-length, semester-long courses, they do compel instructors to prioritize and scale back content. While there is serious resistance to this idea in traditional academia (see Craig Nelson’s “dysfunctional illusions of rigor”), MOOCs give us license, even a mandate, to reduce the total amount of content we try to shovel into students’ heads.

Takeaway: Courses tend to grow over time; we add content but we seldom subtract it. To avoid content overload, ask yourself: What are the most important ideas? What do I most want students to know or be able to do by the end of the course? Prioritize and cut what isn't essential. Then use the time you’ve created to incorporate problem solving, discussion, reflection, etc.

Motivational deficits. We love our own disciplines or we wouldn't be in them. Our enthusiasm can be contagious to students. However, it can also lead us to assume that the value of our fields is as evident to others as it is to us. This is a mistake. In fact, from the perspective of student motivation, it’s critical not only to teach material that is timely and relevant but also to highlight its relevance.

Again, MOOCs push us in the right direction. By and large, MOOC students don't pay tuition. They aren't a captive audience and they don't have to sit still for our lectures. This makes it essential, not optional, to ask and answer the question: Why should students care? This is a question we ought to ask ourselves more often in the context of tuition-bearing courses as well.

Takeaway: Don't assume that students immediately see the value of the material you’re teaching. Instead, point out the value or (better yet) ask questions that prompt students to identify the value for themselves. Also, think about what your students care about and try to link what you're teaching to what they value, personally, intellectually and professionally.

Pitfalls That MOOCs Lead Us Toward
Alas, MOOCs can reinforce bad pedagogical habits as well. Chief among these is the tendency to mistake a set of lectures for a course. Not only are lectures, at most, only part of a course, but they're not even a terribly effective pedagogical method. Over 30 years of research indicates that, unlike more active forms of learning, lecture does not promote deep learning, knowledge retention or the ability to transfer learning into new contexts. Thus, the overwhelming focus in MOOCs on lecture delivery is cause for dismay. Indeed, there is a distinct irony to the fact that some of our most forward-thinking learning platforms take such a backward-looking approach to pedagogy.

Takeaway: Use lectures strategically to illuminate core disciplinary ideas, explain tricky concepts or demonstrate problem solving, but don't over rely on them. Remember that when it comes to deep learning, less is usually more. It’s generally a good idea to prioritize and cut your total lecture content while creating more opportunities for students to actively use what they're learning.

Second, the educational value of MOOCs is almost always compromised by the M in the title. When courses are massive, the instructor’s ability to utilize robust assessments, provide helpful feedback and create a meaningful connection with students is necessarily limited. Even the best MOOCs (the University of Pennsylvania’s Modern and Contemporary American Poetry is my personal favorite) can't offer the same kinds of rich, project-based or writing-intensive assessments that smaller courses routinely do. This isn't a bad habit; it’s just a functional constraint of the medium. The bad habit is believing that multiple-choice quizzes, even good ones, are an adequate replacement for more robust and authentic forms of assessment.

Takeaway: Multiple-choice quizzes and tests are easy to grade and can, if well designed, test higher-order thinking skills. They're helpful, especially for managing faculty workload in large classes. But students also need opportunities to produce their own work, to construct meaning and practice using key skills. And this requires projects and assignments that allow students to think, write and speak critically -- and receive feedback on their work.

Neither the good teaching habits described here nor the bad ones are inevitable for MOOCs: the MOOC format simply makes these habits easier to fall into. Nor are the pitfalls discussed (expert blind spot, prior knowledge gaps, content overload, motivational deficits, over reliance on lecture and inadequate assessment methods) significant only for MOOCs. They're every bit as relevant -- and arguably far more problematic -- in for-credit courses.
Why focus on MOOCs then? MOOCs have different constraints and challenges that help to shed new light on issues surrounding teaching and learning. And they highlight these issues outside the contexts in which most of us teach, where perhaps we can see them more clearly.