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Wednesday, May 16, 2012

On Changing Education Because It's What the Students Want

In a previous post I mentioned an article by Sidneyeve Matrix who advocates changing the "traditional" form of undergraduate university education by incorporating more technology [Challenges, Opportunities, and New Expectations]. In that post, I concentrated on one of the arguments for online courses [On the Quality of Online Courses].

In this post I want to bring up one of the arguments for introducing new technology into a course. I'm going to pick a quote from Sidneyeve Matrix's article but she's not the only one who brings it up.
There’s a torrent of research demonstrating the costs and benefits of using social, mobile, and digital technology enhancements to teach; yet it’s inconclusive whether these result in higher student outcomes. Of course, there are multiple bottom lines to consider. What’s undeniable is that even though digital divides exist, today’s students expect to see some technology used in their classes. It follows that we can expect increased engagement and higher student satisfaction when profs power-up. In my experience, exceedingly positive end-of-term student surveys and reviews in my ed-tech enhanced courses document a beneficial halo effect.
The first statement is true, as far as I know. There are no sound pedagogical reasons for incorporating social media and other technologies into a course. That means there must be other, not-pedagogical, reasons for change.

The third statement says that it's "undeniable" that students expect to see some technology in their class. What does this mean? Will they be satisfied if they see a power point presentation and a website? Do they expect their professors to befriend them on facebook or follow their tweets? We don't know. The statement is devoid of meaning.

However, what seems to be "undeniable" is that there are some professors who think that it's important to give students whatever they want. These professors seem to think that it's the students, not them, who are the experts on undergraduate education. Is there any evidence for that?

Of course not. The reason for giving students what they want is clearly spelled out in the last sentence. If you give them what they want then you'll get good student evaluations.

In fairness, she also mentions "engagement." If student engagement is one of your goals—it's one of mine—then that's a reason for exploring technology options. That may, or may not, be associated with student satisfaction. My experience suggests that it's not. I first started an online discussion forum for students in 1987-88 using a usenet forum running on a VAX. Very few students used it but the ones who did liked it a lot.

Over the last 25 years, I've tried various ways of encouraging student engagement on the internet including, in the last iteration, trying to get students to read and comment on blogs. The result is always the same. A subset of the class has a great time "engaging" and a larger subset resists all attempts to draw them in. The most effective way to encourage, and reward, engagement is to do it in class with the students right there with you. The downside is that a good chunk of your class are miserable because they don't want to "engage" in their own learning. They would rather be passive learners.
In order for professors to engage in podcasting or online lectures or tweeting, or supporting their colleagues who opt to publish in open source journals or participate in online conferences, they must see real benefits and an immediate, significant return on investment. Perhaps for some profs evidence of increased student satisfaction and engagement will win them over.
I hope that "increased student satisfaction" will never be a primary motive for change. It may be a secondary benefit but that's not the same thing. Our job is to teach effectively. If the proper teaching methods don't "please" the students then our job is to convince them that they need to change their minds about what gives them pleasure. If they can't do that then they might have only two choices: (1) be miserable throughout their stay in university, or (2) drop out.

Option three: (3) make the professor change the course in order to cater to the student's view of how a course should be taught, is not a reasonable option.

Many of these debates and discussions about the use of new technology in the classroom assume that there's resistance from old professors who are uncomfortable with new technology and/or social media. That may be true of some professors but many of my mature colleagues have been computer literate since before many young professors were born. Many of my colleagues have been using email for thirty years. They have had webpages, including course webpages, since the web was created twenty years ago. In spite of the fact that they are not intimidated by technology—what science professor is intimidated by new technology?—they have not radically transformed their way of teaching in the past several decades. Why is that? Is it because they have the wisdom and experience to know that new technology is not the best way to improve undergraduate education?


  1. I'm surprised your usenet experience was so negative - I've incorporated a more modern version of that into my course (i.e. a simple discussion forum). Ours is anonymous, and limited to registered students. It acts as a space where students can ask questions about material they didn't understand. Of ~260 students, >90% accessed it weekly or more frequently. It appears to be win-win-win-win; students too shy to ask questions in class/office hours seem to be comfortable with that format, students often seen clarification of points they never thought to ask about, on a few occasions the questions revealed that the lecture material itself was confusing/flawed, and my own workload has gone down since I can now answer a question once for the whole class to see, instead of a dozen times as students come by my office. We had a lot of positive feedback about the forum, and it meant that office hours were dominated by the handful of students who were really engrossed by the material and wanted to discuss the more complex stuff outside of the scope of the course (which is what office hours should be about).

    Maybe its time to revisit the "usenet" in your course?

    But I'd agree that adding technology for the sake of having new technology is pointless, even distracting. We tried a few other techie things to increase student involvement - i.e. a student-written wiki (i.e. student-driven study-guide) which ended up being one paragraph long, an in-class twitter feed for students to ask questions (only tweet ever received was to inform me that I had a stain on my shirt), as well as some in-class web-polls to try and coax answers out of the class (answered, on average, by <1% of the class). I think the tweets/polls actually ended up being distractions, rather than improving pedagogy.

    1. We had an excellent online forum at the University of Toronto (BIOME) and I used it extensively from 2002-2008. We had many lively discussions about all kinds of topics related, and unrelated, to the course. It was great for the students who participated.

      Unfortunately, there were a great many students who didn't like it and never used it. When I told them that some material posted on BIOME would be on the exam, they complained that they had to wade through a lot of garbage before getting to the good stuff. They were right. Even specialized threads like "Citric Acid Cycle" would have one hundred comments.

      The kind of banter that takes place on those fora is not for everyone. All in all, I don't rate it as a success because the very students I wanted to engage were the ones who avoided it.

      As for questions, email works very well. There are many students who will ask me questions via email but would never post those very same questions "in public." It's true that asking questions on a course listserve, or some course software package, does help a few students but the benefits seem to be confined to a "clique" of students who like the give-and-take and the banter. I think that's unfair even though those students are my favorite kind of students.

      When I was actively involved in the forum there were many excited and positive comments on the student evaluations. It was easy to imagine that the vast majority of the class loved it. That wasn't true. A substantial number of students hated it and didn't comment on the course evaluations. Many of those students were intimidated by the exchanges on the forum and it made their experience miserable.

    2. We didn't seem to have those problems - the "banter" on the forum was non-existent; I'd guess 90% of threads consisted of a question, followed by a single reply from one of the course instructors/TAs. The ones that extended beyond that were, in nearly all cases, related questions or requests for further clarification. The only non-Q&A type questions that I recall were ones where students had missed a lecture and were looking for someone willing to share notes, or the inevitable "will 'X' be on the exam" questions.

      Our forum was run through our uni's course management system (i.e. blackboard, although we use a different system), which gave us a lot of useful stats. Like I said, the vast majority of students were accessing it at least weekly, most once or twice a day, and they were clicking on (and presumably reading) most of the threads. So I think we were reaching most of the class. One interesting aspect of our (now defunct) teaching software is that would could correlate # of forum reads (or posts) to lecture note downloads, grades, etc. As you'd expect, the 10% who didn't use the forum were largely also the 10% who didn't download the lecture notes, and generally were those who did the worst in the course.

      In terms of student evals, we're quite confident that the forum was liked - our evals allow for both a numerical scoring and comments from the students. We had explicit questions asking about each of the "technological tools" on the course evaluation. The twitter and polls were universally panned (as were some of the "active learning" methods employed in-lecture), but there were no serious criticisms of the forum and it scored rather high (6.8/7, if I recall correctly).

      But it also sounds like you were using yours for a broader purpose, which is maybe why it wasn't as widely used/liked. Ours was a simple Q&A type system; the questions asked were (generally) directly from the lectures & assigned readings, rather than being in addition to those materials. I can see how a more broadly used/dynamic forum like yours could be intimidating (and useful) - although, in your case it sounds little different than in-class discussions where a handful of vocal students can easily take over things.

      I agree that email is great for questions, but the advantage of the forum (in the way we used it), is that students could see what questions had been asked, so there were few repeats. Plus, judging on the number of questions asked on the forum, verses the number of e-mail received in previous years, the anonymity of the forum increased the number of students asking questions.

      My biggest concern in using the forum was that it would be flooded with nonsense, flame-wars, and the like; I was happily surprised when none of that happened.