It’s About Time: Intellectual Technology and General Education

The first session of this fall’s Educational Technology Planning course met last night after losing a week to Irene. The course is an elective in the Educational Planning, Policy and Leadership program at the School of Education and is made up of a students in masters and doctoral programs in K-12 and higher education administration. The goal is to look at technology decisions through the lens of the leaders who will be responsible for selecting and managing large-scale education technology projects–chief information officers or chief technology officers. It’s a difficult course, since it requires students to integrate a considerable amount of technical information into a personal vision of how information technologies might impact education in the near to intermediate future.

The course is generally built around an authentic learning project for an outside client. This year presented an unusual opportunity since William and Mary is undergoing its first review of general education requirements since the invention of the World Wide Web. Michael Lewis, one of the co-chairs of the Curriculum Review Committee, is a mathematician/computer scientist who has been involved with a number of IT initiatives in the past, and we had talked about the possibility of the class looking at the role of “intellectual technologies” in general education. Obviously, I think that computers and communications technology have transformed society in ways that pose a whole host of technical, pedagogical, ethical, social and economic questions that need to be addressed much differently than we would have addressed them in 1990. For me the broad question might be framed this way:

How much does a citizen need to know about information (educational, intellectual) technology to be considered well-educated in the 21st century?

The project that I suggested to the class was writing a carefully developed white paper where we offer some perspectives, ideas, and thoughts about that question. We have 16 students in the class, 12 weeks of class time, and an incredibly broad range of backgrounds and experiences. Michael came and met with the class to provide an overview of the committee’s work to date and provided some history on general education at WM, and left us to determine if this was the project that we wanted to take on.

The discussion was spirited, but I’m not sure if it was effective or not. My fear is that I really didn’t allow the group the freedom to decide if these was the project that wanted to work on or not. I had put a fair amount of effort into developing a structure that I thought would allow us to get organized relatively quickly, but that structure didn’t seem to work for a fair number of folks in the class. The biggest concern didn’t appear to me to be the importance or substance of the project, but rather if there was enough time to complete it. (At least that’s what I heard.) My own sense was that it was a tight deadline, but we had the time and the tools to make a real contribution to the discussion at the College if we put our minds to it.

We decided–or maybe they acquiesced to my expectation–to give it a week working within the format that I had proposed and see where it goes. We’ll see where it goes.

The Rules of Engagement: Socializing College Students for the New Century

Tomorrow’s Professor Blog: 844. The Rules of Engagement: Socializing College Students for the New Century

One of the few listservs that I still subscribe to is the Tomorrows-Professor Mailing List, The TP Mailing List seeks to “foster a diverse, world-wide teaching and learning ecology” and goes out to over 25,000 subscribers at over 600 institutions and organizations in over 108 countries around the world. To date there have been over 750 postings by author and engineering professor Rick Ries.

The pieces posted are often thought provoking, like the one entitled Death to the Syllabus. I taught my last course without a syllabus–using a prospectus instead that I think avoided some of the baggage that has become intertwined with the syllabus in far too many courses:

It is time to declare war on the traditional course syllabus. If there is one single artifact that pinpoints the degradation of liberal education, it is the rule-infested, punitive, controlling syllabus that is handed out to students on the first day of class.

The most recent post to capture my attention probably won’t find its way into my practice anytime soon. Extracted from the subscription only National Teaching and Learning Forum Newsletter, the thrust of the article is that students are becoming ruder and more inappropriate in their behavior and that many arrive at college with no understanding of the basic standards of classroom civility, etiquette, and socialization that make a class run smoothly. Professor Neil Williams from East Connecticut State has developed an elaborate set of classroom Rules of Engagement to ensure that students live up to those standards. The rules include greeting the professor by name when arriving and leaving class, taking personal responsibility for errors in personal and academic judgement and my personal favorite:

When you yawn, cover it completely with an entire hand. When the event has passed, mouth the words ‘Pardon me’ or ‘Excuse me.’ An open-mouthed or uncovered yawn is about as insensitive, rude, and inappropriate as it gets. There is almost no instance in which a yawn arrives without some sort of internal biological warning, and all that is being asked is for students to cover their mouths out of respect for the person who is forced to look at them and their dental history.

According to Williams, the rules work as long as everything is done with a smile. When the rules work, the students can become better people, better citizens, and eminently more employable or acceptable to graduate school. What more could a teacher ask for?

How Good is Good Enough?

Are You as Good a Teacher as You Think?

One of the hardest parts about most of our work in academic technology is trying to figure out how to evaluate our progress. Every workshop could be tweaked to be just a little better. Every web site could be made a little more user friendly. Every class offers an endless opportunity to improve assignments, clarify explanations, or provide better feedback to students. How much is enough?

Paul Price, a psychology faculty member at Cal State, Fresno, has published an interesting essay that focuses on why it is so difficult for us to judge our effectiveness as teachers (or as people who support teachers). He begins by citing a study showing that 94% of faculty members at a major research university considered themselves to be better teachers than the average at their institutions. As a statistician, Price believes that somewhere in the neighborhood of 50% actually are better than average teachers–whatever that ultimately means. The tendency to overestimate our own abilities is perfectly natural: “…there is plenty of evidence from social-cognitive psychology that pretty much anyone who isn’t clinically depressed systematically overestimates his or her own traits and abilities in a wide variety of domains.” Social psychologists studying “social judgement” have documented the tendency in our assessment of friendliness, driving ability, health, and the quality of our work.

According to Price, college teachers are particularly susceptible to these kinds of errors because most faculty members work extremely hard, but they have unusual freedom to focus on things that are important to them. In research universities especially, faculty members decide what courses they teach, how to organize them, what materials to use, what exams and assignments to give. We work very long hours, but generally alone or with the students within our own classes. The fact that our colleagues are working just as hard seldom comes into our field of awareness.

Our ability overestimate our effectiveness is complicated by the fact that we can define good teaching in so many different ways and then use those self-defined definitions to rate our own competence. I might consider myself an excellent teacher because I engage my students in authentic learning activities while my colleague across the hall considers himself to be a truly outstanding lecturer who considers student involvement to be one of those hippy fads that will ultimately go away. Each of us finds security in our own definition of excellence.

Our ability is further compromised by the difficulty of getting valid feedback on our performance, in spite of the amount of time, energy and cash institutions invest in faculty and course evaluations.

As psychologists have repeatedly demonstrated, social feedback tends to be incredibly misleading. Social psychologist David Sears has studied what he calls the “person-positivity bias”—people’s tendency to evaluate other people positively in the absence of any good reason not to. In an examination of student evaluations of their professors at UCLA, comprising literally hundreds of thousands of ratings, Sears found that the average was 7.22 on a nine-point scale… As a result, these kinds of student and peer evaluations tend to confirm our inflated views of our own abilities. A better interpretation of your rating of six on a seven-point scale, then, is that you have no extremely obvious shortcomings. That’s a long way from being a superstar.The better-than-average effect extends beyond judgments about the selfto judgments about almost any individual.

Price acknowledges that a certain amount of self-deception is probably healthy:

scholars from a variety of fields—philosophy, psychoanalysis, and evolutionary biology among them—have argued that this kind of self-deception may be functional. One contemporary view in psychology is that being unrealistically optimistic about one’s traits, abilities, and level of control over the environment is an important component of good mental health

Doing justice to the complexity of teaching, however, requires us to look beyond the natural biases of our psychology by 1) learning more intentionally from our colleagues about their teaching, 2) reflecting systematically on our own strengths and weaknesses as teachers, and 3) communicating more creatively with our students about the substance of their learning. Price closes with the following thought: “When we accept the proposition that we’re not as good as we think, we’re already considerably better than we were.”