Monthly Archives: April 2011

Research with a purpose

Recently here in Texas, students at the University of Texas at Austin have been protesting Governor Rick Perry’s push to force faculty members to focus more on teaching and less on research. A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher education discusses the ongoing debate between students and Perry’s camp. Students are arguing that forcing faculty members (many of whom are world-class researchers at UT Austin) to focus less on research would devalue their education and worsen their job prospects. However, Perry’s camp argues that professors ought to focus more on teaching in order to serve students better.

Tony McDonald questions the importance of ongoing research in universities because “in many cases, they’re [professors] just compiling data to publish in a journal that few people really read.” In some ways, I agree with Tony. Often, professors and academics (myself included) get so focused on publishing and answering their own questions of intrigue that we forget to take a step back and ask, “How is this applicable to the real world?” Research should be fueled by the need to solve real-world problems, and sometimes the focus gets off.

I was surprised, however, that so many students were vying for keeping rigorous research programs on the table rather than focusing more on teaching. I wonder if this push exists merely because students know that top-of-the-line researchers are often required for top tier universities, thus their dependence on it. Or, are these students actually receiving real-world benefits from research? I do not know the answer to that question, but I do know how students could start directly benefiting from university research.

Simply put, more students need to be involved in the research process. Often, students are coddled and given too simple of assignments for classes. For instance, students are continuously told to write literature reviews in psychology but rarely conduct their own research. Or, they might do simple labs each week instead of collecting a semester’s worth of data and then writing it up as a brief journal article. I think if professors would invite more students into ongoing research, several benefits would occur: 1) students would get hands-on experience doing actual research, 2) professors could collect more data (more hands!), and 3) hopefully professors who are forced to turn their own research into a learning exercise would  think more about the practical implications of their research.

Either way, I think that research and teaching should stop being competing forces and instead should be synthesized. If teaching fuels research and research fuels teaching, there might just be a whole lot more time, knowledge, and energy to go around among faculty members.

Hybrid education

A recent article on the Chronicle of Higher Education‘s website discusses the lack of hybrid courses (online and face-to-face interaction) existing to meet the demands of students. According to the article, a recent survey of 20,000 current and prospective adult students found that 33% of students prefer hybrid course formats. However, only 19% of respondents said they were in such a class. So the question is, when and how will universities implement more of these much desired hybrid courses?

Perhaps the biggest issue is cost. A lot of universities have jumped on the online course bandwagon to cut costs, but this could be causing them to forget that a hybrid format may be ideal. It’s the blending of face-to-face interaction with the best of what the online environment has to offer that creates the best learning spaces.

So what might an ideal learning environment look like?

Here are some examples. Combining a face-to-face discussion class with online blogging entries to spark class discussion. Professors could use the blogs to help drive class discussion and guide the students in their specific areas of interest or confusion. One could also utilize online role-playing games to teach certain principles, such as using a poverty simulation game to teach basic principles of poverty. That online experience can then be used to spark more discussion in class. Without the in-class portion; however, most students miss out on some of the greatest features of online learning, such as community building, increasing interest in the classroom, and sparking classroom discussion.

Snooping around

Last night, I had the opportunity to teach an honors colloquium to a group of sophomore university students. In these colloquiums, a given faculty member gets to choose a text and topic of his or her choice. Then, students write an essay prompt given by their professor. It’s one of those dream academic experiences where you get to choose what your students read, what assignment you want to give them, and then discuss said interesting topic of your choice with eager honors students. Dream come true.

For my colloquium, I my students read the book Snoop by Sam Gosling, a personality psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin. Snoop discusses research by Gosling on how to interpret what individuals’ spaces (home, office, etc.) say about their personalities. Using years worth of research, Gosling guides his readers through the snooping process so that they can start to become proficient snoopers themselves.

The first part of my students’ assignment was, of course, to read the book. As for giving them a writing assignment, I decided to ask myself, “What’s interesting?” when assigning the prompt. This is a question I have decided to start asking myself as a teacher so that I can give better, more engaging assignments to my students. The sky was the limit here, so I decided to think outside of the box a little. I did this with the help of my dear colleague and friend who is also a very talented teacher, Jordan LaBouff. Together, we decided on a very interesting assignment.

For this assignment, I required my students to do some snooping themselves. I had each student pick a friend or someone he or she knew whose space (room or office) he or she could “snoop” around for clues. Students were then required to write a detailed analysis of the room and make inferences about these individuals’ personalities based off the information provided in Snoop. Finally, students compared their results from snooping to what they knew about this person as a friend. In addition to completing this assignment, I had students send in pictures of their rooms, facebook pages, or offices. Then, I uploaded these pictures to a PowerPoint where we would be practicing some snooping ourselves at the colloquium.

The response I received on the assignment even before the colloquium was overwhelmingly positive. I had students writing me to tell me how much they loved the assignment and were really excited about the colloquium. One student showed up (even though she had attended enough colloquiums to gain her needed amount of points) just because she wanted to learn! It was my dream come true as a teacher – to teach something so interesting that students are naturally excited to come learn.

When students arrived for the colloquium (after having already completed their snooping assignments), we first discussed the Big Five personality traits (openness to new experiences, agreeableness, extraversion, neuroticism, and conscientiousness). These are personality traits dominantly studied in personality psychology and the focus of the book Snoop. After doing this, I had students fill out personality inventories to measure their ratings on each of the Big Five. Finally, it was time to snoop. We went through each picture (of rooms offices, and facebook pages) and tried to infer what type of personality the owner of the room had. Was the person a male or a female? Was he or she high or low on conscientousness? What about openness?

The students seemed to be very into the project. Hands flew up all over the room to make guesses based on what they had read in the book. After guessing for a while, we would then reveal the owner of the room and ask him or her how accurate we were. Finally, we would compare our analysis to the actual Big Five measures of each student. It was like being real-life snoopers, and the students loved it.

I learned a lot through this process. I learned to think outside of the box when creating assignments. I learned that doing is always better than listening. But the most basic thing I learned is to always ask, “What’s interesting?” And then do that.



Introducing course trailers

Last week here at Baylor’s Educational Technology Showcase, the Academy for Teaching and Learning unveiled its premiere of course trailers. “What is a course trailer?” you might ask. Exactly what it sounds like.

Course trailers are a way to describe and promote various courses throughout the university. Basically, you interview a professor, have them discuss his or her course, and then you edit a trailer that looks something like a movie trailer. The idea originally was picked up by Addy Meira, an ATL graduate fellow, at the New Media Consortium conference last year in 2010. Universities like Harvard were utilizing course trailers to advertise courses to students in a more creative and engaging way (see examples of Harvard’s course trailers here).

Well, we took that idea and ran with it. We modeled it somewhat after other universities’ trailers, but we wanted to add our own Baylor/ATL flair to it. We not only cut it like a movie trailer, we cut it to tell a story. Our editing and post-production was done by the talented Mr. Patrick Shen, who is a graduate student in the Film and Digital Media department here at Baylor. Patrick has several years of experience working post-production in the industry (i.e., L.A.), and he cut the most beautiful trailer. The course was an introductory level philosophy course on the life and suffering of famed author, C.S. Lewis. The final trailer tells a story of the journey students will be taken on by taking this course. By including nature pieces, soundbits, interviews with the course professor, Trent Doughtery, and clips from the movie Shadowlands (on C.S. Lewis’s late life), Patrick created a world that invited students in rather than asking them to somewhat passively read a course description.

The premiere of this trailer at the EdTech showcase was phenomenal. We could not have received better reviews. Professors wanted to know how they could sign up for it. Individuals from all over campus were enthralled by it. Students wanted to take the class and asked “Is this on YouTube?” Great question, kids. Soon enough.

Our next plan of action is to get a few more professors to sign up for the course trailers and then create a few more pilot trailers. Then, we want to go big or go home. The next step will be to get a grant that will fund the project. After all, you have to hire talent like Patrick and Addy. We want to offer this service to several faculty members and ultimately host a course trailer page, much like Harvard does. Our hope is that Baylor embraces this exciting, creative, and engaging project. That’s where the Ivy Leagues are – inventing and creating cools stuff.

Hopefully the video link will be posted soon. Be looking for that.

Christopher Long on courseblogs

Last week we had a guest lecturer in town, Christopher Long, from Penn State University. Long was coming to Baylor to discuss how to curate your digital vitae. Walking into the lecture, I somehow expected him to discuss how I ought to make my vitae more digitally relevant, with a webpage and perhaps a blog. But that is not what he did. Rather, he discussed pedagogy and how media and technologies can be used to aid academics in fulfilling the three roles they are often called to: teaching, research, and administration or service.

Go figure. It’s often simultaneously more simple and more complex than I first imagined. Often, I try to make utilizing digital technologies in academia this large task that must be completed so that I can be “relevant” in the modern world. But rather, it’s about how digital technologies can make my job easier and more effective if I utilize them effectively. But like any good teacher, Long kept pedagogy the cornerstone of his lecture.

The primary focus for Long was the utilization of course blogs in the classroom to help build community and engagement among students. My interest was naturally peaked as an instructor who has previously integrated course blogs into my classrooms. Course blogs are much like regular blogs, except that all students’ blogs and comments are integrated into a single, communal space, which is the course blog. Many of the benefits he mentioned from using course blogs, I saw in my own classroom. Things such as more active involvement in class and a stronger sense of community were among the top of my list.

However, I did not see the same level of writing quality that he  saw throughout his semester. Part of the trick, I believe, was that he used a course blog rubric. For those of you considering using course blogs in your classroom, I highly recommend utilizing Long’s rubric. By using a rubric that is vague while still communicating the level of writing that is expected, Long helped his students remain creative but substantively creative.

By utilizing course blogs, Long noted, students gain ownership of their own class. They write the reflections. They comment on each other’s blogs. And ultimately, they determine where the class goes. For instance, Long taught a philosophy class and discussed how students drove the conversation to heavily cover ethics. Without the blog, the course may never have been driven to where the students wanted to focus.

The downside to this ownership is that it means professors must be open to owing their classes less. But I don’t see this as a downside. As Plutarch noted, “The mind is not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be kindled.” Thus, we as teachers must reach for tools that kindle the fire of interest, creativity, and learning in our students. In doing this, however, we must let go of the concept that teaching is pouring our vessels of knowledge into our students. If we can let go, our students might begin to kindle and then go on to do really interesting things themselves because they had the experience of being their own learning agents. Things like starting a non-profit organization for Sri Lankans (something a student at Penn State did). If we expect our students to do when they graduate, we must help them learn how to do now. And the best way to get students doing is to let them be actively involved in their own education. I encourage other professors out there to consider courseblogging as a way to engage your students and invite them into the process of discussing and ultimately creating their own class and the materials therein.