The Use of Wonder

Phillip Ball has an interesting piece in the New Statesman about the need in science for wonder, that fascination with the magic of discovery and seeing things in a different way. You may disagree with him that science has lost that sense of wonder, and I’m not even sure he’s arguing that it has, but he does think that rationality often belittles wonder, as in his discussion of Robert Hooke:

Under the microscope, mould and moss became fantastic gardens, lice and fleas were transformed into intricate armoured brutes, and the multifaceted eyes of a fly reflect back ten thousand images of Hooke’s laboratory. Micrographia shows us a determined rationalist struggling to discipline his wonder into a dispassionate record.

However, I think that we as teachers and learners are in a tremendous position to maintain our sense of wonder at all sorts of things: new interpretations of poems, a different paradigm for knowledge categorization, technological breakthroughs that enable more powerful analyses of energy and matter. Even some of the conclusions of our students are possibilities for wonder.

How do we keep wonder alive in our classrooms and in our scholarship?

Posted in Uncategorized

Get to work!

With the costs of education skyrocketing and state support for education diminishing, the public, experts, and politicians are looking for ways to contain costs. David Levy has written an opinion piece in the Washington Post that argues that professors are overpaid for the work they do. According to Levy,

An executive who works a 40-hour week for 50 weeks puts in a minimum of 2,000 hours yearly. But faculty members teaching 12 to 15 hours per week for 30 weeks spend only 360 to 450 hours per year in the classroom.

Did you see what Levy did there? Levy took a 40 hour week, assumed two weeks vacation, and then applied that math to faculty members time in the classroom. Now, those who are teachers — or who know anything about teaching — can understand from this comparison alone Levy’s shaky grasp of education, but he’s willing to dig himself an even deeper hole:

Even in the unlikely event that they devote an equal amount of time to grading and class preparation, their workload is still only 36 to 45 percent of that of non-academic professionals. Yet they receive the same compensation.

David Levy believes teachers spend more time in the classroom than they do prepping and grading. I’d like a show of hands for any teacher who actually accomplishes this feat. You most likely have a bright future at TED conferences.

But wait, there’s more. Forget the idea that faculty members engage in committee work, because Levy doesn’t even acknowledge that work, and advising he brushes aside in a parenthetical statement. Without citing any sort of statistics, Levy assures us that teachers are in fact a very underworked bunch:

While time outside of class can vary substantially by discipline and by the academic cycle (for instance, more papers and tests to grade at the end of a semester), the notion that faculty in teaching institutions work a 40-hour week is a myth. And whatever the weekly hours may be, there is still the 30-week academic year, which leaves almost 22 weeks for vacation or additional employment.

I do grant Levy his point that it’s a myth that faculty in teaching institutions work a 40 hour week; faculty most likely put in 60 hours a week, but let’s leave Levy in his fantasy world in which course syllabi spring full-grown from the head of faculty and the time between semesters (those magical 22 weeks free for “vacation or additional employment”) isn’t taken up with research, course preparation, or institutional bookkeeping.

What I want to know is how do you spend all that free time?

Posted in The Profession | 2 Comments

Academic technologies and their discontents.

Technology has transformed education, as it has most fields, through connecting users to information and other users, decreasing the time it takes to circulate information, and increasing the options for creating, collecting, and assessing projects.

I can still vaguely recall the day in the late 1990’s I was asked to attend a meeting on a new tool that the university was developing to handle course materials. It was crude, but it enabled instructors to put course syllabi and lesson plans online and perform some basic interactions with students. Course Management Systems have come a long way since then, and online education continues to grow its market share.

However, technology isn’t only for online courses. Even in face to face courses, as educators we may feel under pressure to incorporate technology into the classroom, whether it’s through creating course wikis or podcasts, developing blogs, or using computer simulations. It’s easy to believe that we simply have to use technology, in some cases, simply to hold the students’ attention. Kansas State University associate professor Michael Wesch is a professor who’s been on the forefront of using technology in his classes, but as a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article notes, he’s rethinking the subject — not rejecting technology, but rethinking its advantages and limitations in the classroom — and focusing more on the ways in which different teachers reach their classes in different ways, as he discusses in this anecdote about observing another professor, Christopher Sorensen:

As Mr. Wesch began to rethink his teaching, he visited Mr. Sorensen’s class and was impressed by how the low-tech professor connected with students: “He’s a lecturer. He’s not breaking them up into small groups or having them make videos. That’s my thing, right? But he’s totally in tune with where they are and the struggle it takes to understand physics concepts. He is right there by their side, walking them through the forest of physics.”

It seems the key here is the connection, not the tools used to make the connection. Do you use technology in your classroom? Has it worked? Has it not worked? What other methods do you use to make those connections with your classes, to put you “in tune with where they are”?

Posted in Technology

How do your badges stack up?

As online education grows through the increasing power of the internet, the nature of the internet also challenges traditional education models, such as the idea that you have to pay tuition to a college or university. Aside from the open courses provided by universities like MIT and Stanford, there are several start ups that occupy less formal positions in the constellation of web-based education offerings. For example, Khan Academy ( , which began with Salman Khan posting tutorial videos for his family, now offers an array of video lessons (mainly on math and science topics), and has moved to formalize its instruction by providing students with progress tracking and, indeed, badges for achievement levels.

As the Chronicle of Higher Education reports, Khan Academy is not alone in offering some form of credential for completing its courses, and such programs may proliferate if Mozilla’s plan to make offering credentials easier gets off the ground:

Mozilla, the group that develops the popular Firefox Web browser, is designing a framework to let anyone with a Web page—colleges, companies, or even individuals—issue education badges designed to prevent forgeries and give potential employers details about the distinctions at the click of a mouse. [1]

As a concept goes, it’s not terribly new. We’ve had credentials outside traditional colleges and universities being issued for years. Technology companies, for instance, routinely offer courses and exams to become certified in one of their product lines or areas, such as Microsoft’s “Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer,” or MCSE. The allure of these credentials is that they’re specifically geared toward one very identifiable target.  Again, as the Chronicle reports,

Employers might prefer a world of badges to the current system. After all, traditional college diplomas look elegant when hung on the wall, but they contain very little detail about what the recipient learned.[2]

Therein, of course, lies the challenge for traditional colleges and universities (not to mention accrediting bodies). Especially as we — from government down to parents — have in recent years been talking about college accountability and the value of a college education largely in terms of “employability” or “practical job skills,” how does a university compete with more compartmentalized and specific self-paced courseware?

If we believe that a college education consists of something beyond the diploma, then we’d better figure out what that is. Otherwise, it’s just a fancy and very expensive badge.

Posted in Online Education, Technology

The Cost of the Written Word

The signs of a new semester are upon us: faculty hunched over their computers fine-tuning their syllabi, committee meetings looming on the calendar, and of course stacks of books sitting in the campus bookstore. Those stacks of books are perhaps an endangered species as textbook manufacturers increase their roll-outs of electronic versions and the student population gravitates toward ereaders such as the Kindle, Nook, and iPad. The proliferation of etexts would seem to be one way to limit the cost of course materials for students, since you are after all cutting out the cost of the physical material. However, a recent study conducted at Dayton State College and reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education paints a different picture:

Despite the promise that digital textbooks can lead to huge cost savings for students, a new study at Daytona State College has found that many who tried e-textbooks saved only one dollar, compared with their counterparts who purchased traditional printed material. [1]

I wouldn’t take this study as the last word on the matter. For starters, the study covered two courses over four semesters, so it’s a fairly small sample. Also, it was only one of the two courses surveyed in which students — in three of four semesters — saved only $1; in the other course “student savings were more significant, sometimes surpassing $40 per student.” [2]

However, I’d rather not get bogged down in the merits of the study. I was interested in the logistical issues of e-texts and the ways they have or haven’t changed your classroom practices. For instance, there’s this rather interesting logistical challenge:

DSC’s Daytona Beach campus has a wireless network from which students in e-text rental and netbook rental sections could access course materials during class. When wireless access points in these classrooms became overloaded, technicians worked to boost signal strength to accommodate full classes. Students nevertheless had difficulty accessing their e-texts at times due to technical issues with publishers’ sites. [3]

If you’ve used e-texts, why have you done so? Is it primarily to cut costs for the students? Is it a dedication to technological innovation (in some fields it could very easily be part of the pedagogy as much as forcing students to use word processors rather than typewriters was in the 1980’s)? If you’ve considered using them, but haven’t, why not? Moreover, if you haven’t even considered e-texts, why not?

[1] Chronicle of Higher Ed:

[2] Chronicle of Higher Ed:

[3] Educause Quarterly:  — see in particular the section “Getting Started.”

Posted in Technology | Tagged

What happens when we don’t teach?

Recently the Washington Post and the Chronicle of Higher Education reported on a professor at George Washington University’s medical school who never showed up to class and gave every enrolled student an A:

According to a statement released by the university on Wednesday, Ms. Orcutt had been assigned to teach a sequence of three one-credit courses in evidence-based medicine over three semesters last year. The first semester of the required course was face to face, and she showed up for that. But according to three students who complained to the university’s provost last month, Ms. Orcutt went missing when the course sequence shifted online.

Initial reports didn’t specify that the courses in question were online, but nevertheless the instructor — who was also chair of her department and a program director — didn’t teach the courses, by which the university apparently means she didn’t respond to student written work or interact in any way with the students, except to assign them a grade, which as it turns out was an “A” across the board.

A few students complained, and here’s where it gets interesting:

After reviewing the course work of the enrolled students, the university decided that all of them had met the learning objectives of the two online courses “through other courses, clinical experience, and educational activities embedded throughout the curriculum.”

As a result, they’ll all get tuition refunds for the two online course modules, but they’ll get to keep the credit for those courses that appears on their transcripts. Students who want to take the second and third semesters online for continuing-medical-education credit will be able to do so for free.

The university determined the students met the course objectives through other activities in the curriculum, which makes one wonder why this sequence of three one credit courses is even in the curriculum.

More broadly, does our teaching matter? Is it enough to provide credit for courses they didn’t take if we can determine that other experiences satisfy the course objectives?

With resources such as The Edupunks’ Guide to a DIY Credential, are teachers obsolete?

Posted in Uncategorized

What does the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning do?

The Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETL) has multiple functions within the university framework. Based in the scholarship on teaching and learning (SoTL), CETL facilitates opportunities for faculty to reflect on their teaching practices and to share strategies with each other. However, CETL also provides workshops on pedagogy, training on academic technology, and scholarly resources on SoTL. CETL can conduct consultations with individual teachers and assist professors with surveying their students. CETL occupies a vital place in institutional assessment, because it can help close the loop between the analysis of gathered data and applying that analysis to classroom practices.

Importantly, CETL can only do those things through and with the faculty. CETL takes as its premise the idea that both teaching and learning are discovery, and that we get further through sharing our discoveries — and our missteps — with our peers.

CETL is above all a learning community.

Posted in about CETL | 2 Comments