Pitfalls of real-time, remote teaching

Daniel Stanford, writing back in March about videoconferencing as a way to re-create the classroom experience:

We like the idea of being able to see and hear our students while interacting with them in real time just like we do when teaching face to face. But there are two key factors that make this approach problematic.

Daniel Stanford, Director of Faculty Development and Technology Innovation at DePaul University’s Center for Teaching and Learning
Bandwidth Immediacy Matrix (Stanford’s name for this, same source as link above)

Stanford goes on to describe some of the pitfalls of holding class in real-time but remotely. He does a great job of plotting the various tools along the axes of immediacy and bandwidth. Worth a read as we debrief and take stock of the spring and prepare for fall classes.

Mine your own business, learner

Audrey Watters, who writes at Hack Education, has posted a transcript of a talk she gave at Columbia as part of their Conversations About Online Learning series. Setting aside the envy I have of a place that holds a lecture series about technology and higher learning, Watters goes deep on some of the implications of “data mining” in education, fleshing out some of the ways such data might be used and pointing out how risky that might be for students.

…all this data that students create, that software can track, and that engineers and educators and administrators can analyze will bring about a more “personalized,” a more responsive, a more efficient school system.

How will this magic happen? Using the same secret algorithmic sauce that companies like Google use to tailor search results and ads, and Amazon uses to sell you, well, pretty much anything. So what’s the hitch? There are at least two, according to Watters: privacy and money.

It may be obvious, but if data is going to make a big difference in student learning, that is going to require a sea change in the rules surrounding access to that data. Or is it? It appears that right now, the rules are being skirted by private companies that don’t have the same restrictions as actual schools. I suspect that most students and their parents aren’t aware of this end run around educational data privacy. It is access to this kind of data that will be necessary to assist with learning, in the absence of actual human interaction.

And the money? It’s not money in the sense of cost to students. On the contrary, most ‘big data’ education projects are free to the student, meaning someone else is paying. For now, the bills are being paid by venture capital investors that are expecting BIG returns. We’re in the early days, the thinking goes, of a major shift in the way education is done, and one of the biggest parts of this shift is the privatization of education. Sure, there has been some suggestion that these programs will lead to a system of credentials not unlike a degree, and some programs have even been rolled out. But for the most part, the schools with the biggest stakes in this territory thus far are not talking about any kind of equivalency between their live and online programs.

Scalia’s belief in DNA

Justice Scalia, in his concurrence in the Myriad Genetics patent case:

I join the judgment of the Court, and all of its opinion except Part I–A and some portions of the rest of the opinion going into fine details of molecular biology. I am unable to affirm those details on my own knowledge or even my own belief.

What does this statement mean? The article from which I quoted him (linked above) argues that Scalia here is making a proud statement about his ignorance of the details of molecular biology, and that this scientific illiteracy is a badge of honor among much of society. I’m not so sure, especially given:

Typically, Justice Scalia does not qualify the factual portions of opinions he joins, even where they involve science.

I don’t have any good thoughts on what he has in mind with this qualification, but I find it disturbing. At the same time, as someone who teaches the fundamental concepts at play in this case to students of the liberal arts, I hope none of my students make such a claim when they become Supreme Court Justices.

Answers or exploration

New Lemurs logoI’ve read more and more in recent years about ‘gamifying’ education, and I have to admit, I never got it. This helps to put it in a little more context:

If what you want is an answer and not an exploration then I don’t recommend pretending you’re looking for an exploration. Students are very attuned to bullshit.

Using gaming to engage students and teach certain skills like exploration and problem-solving makes some sense to me.

It also reminds me of an episode of the Debug podcast I listened to recently, with software developer Mike Lee. His current company made a chemistry game for iOS based on actual chemical reaction modeling. Lee tells the story of creating the game in the interview, and how the lack of access to real chemistry sets for kids these days played a small roll in the idea, but rather than trying to replicate mixing chemicals on the iPad, they approached it from the standpoint of letting the technology do what it’s good at. Taking that approach, it seems like there are so many opportunities to create games that teach, it’d hard to know what to work on next.

Lessons learned – Plant Physiology 2013

student poster on zinc and plant growthI’m still waiting on the final research papers from my Plant Physiology students, but everything else for this class is wrapped up. Today I tried something new for their poster presentations, replacing the research posters on the boards in the hallway around my lab with their project posters. This worked better than I expected, enabling the students to mill around and discuss their work with each other; it was not too unlike what happens at an actual poster session.

I like to debrief this class in person every time I teach it because I feel like their shared reflections sometimes lead to input that wouldn’t have emerged without a real-life conversation. One of the topics that came up today was the need for more feedback in the planning stages of their projects. Although they all seemed to like the open-ended nature of the mutant project, several of them said they would have benefited from a more formal meeting with me after they submitted their proposal, but before beginning their experiments. I like this idea and plan to try it next year.

Another good suggestion was to structure the early part of the semester to include some more traditional lab experiences that would expose them to some of the routine methods they were likely to require for their projects. Those first few weeks always feel a bit wasted even though I warn encourage them to use the time wisely by reading widely on their topic, so I think I’ll try mixing it up next year.

On the technical side, only one group in five succeeded in using PCR to confirm their T-DNA insertion. I know each group used the online primer design tool correctly since I checked their work before I placed the order. I’m guessing the weak link in the chain was with either the DNA isolation protocol or bad pipetting technique. I can address both of these with a little more oversight next time, I hope.

film Moana 2016 online streaming

Are MOOCs textbooks masquerading as courses?

About an hour before class on Friday, it began to dawn on me that half of my plant physiology class could be out for the day. Many were attending a botany conference in Columbus, others had emailed that they were sick. When I arrived at class, my suspicions were confirmed — 8 of 15 students were there. I decided to record my comments for the day later and held an impromptu study session for the upcoming exam. I had no idea what it would take to “just record my lecture” for the day.Watch Shark Exorcist (2016) Full Movie Online Streaming Online and Download

inspector panel in Keynote

When you’re used to standing in front of a class and explaining things, it’s very hard to explain things to a computer screen in an empty office. Very, very hard. Not in the technical sense, as Keynote (and I imagine Powerpoint) has that covered. I just opened up my Keynote slideshow for the day, opened the slide inspector, started a slideshow recording, and boom. I made it through the first slide. I glanced at the next slide and drew a blank. I paused the recording, collected my thoughts, and resumed recording. Blanked, paused, resumed, etc

Two hours. That’s what it took me to record 35 min of lecture over 36 slides. The last few slides were a slog, I was drained — way more than after a regular classroom session. After I finished it and sent the link to the class, I started wondering what it must be like to do this for every class. I recently saw an article reflecting on the development of a new MOOC on Coursera, in which the author describes her efforts and those of the production team. I guess I should be happy with only needing 2 hours to record 35 min of material, since it took an hour for her to record a video that will run 3 minutes! 

On one hand, I wish I had the time and talent to build a complete online course from the ground up and have students around the world learning from me, no doubt there is something alluring about that. But I can see how the kind of resources required to do that and do it well keeps it beyond the reach of all but a few faculty. In fact, it seems not unlike the resources needed to create a textbook. Both projects would need several subject area experts, dozens of artists and editors, several experts in learning technology and assessment, a production staff, and I’m sure many others I haven’t imagined. I think this is no coincidence, as I can see MOOCs coming to replace, or at least heavily supplement, traditional textbooks in some courses or parts thereof. Although some publishers see MOOCs as a big sales opportunity due to their large enrollments, it is notable that Coursera itself is urging instructors “not to require any textbooks that cost money” (quoted from previous link). This makes me wonder whether the MOOC platforms (Coursera, edX) are in more direct competition with textbook publishers than anyone really realizes. In fact, that may be a useful lens to evaluate their impact on education, by way of comparison to textbooks, which are all now scrambling to “become digital,” just like MOOCs.

Finding the algorithm: An introduction to reading and understanding scientific papers

I love this concise primer on how to take apart a scientific paper, and it translates almost perfectly to the literature I commonly assign in my upper-level undergraduate classes as well.

JBC [Journal of Biological Chemistry] papers, as is with articles in most biomedical journals, have a basic structure/algorithm.  Once you’ve mastered the algorithm, presenting the paper is much easier.


Venture Capital’s Massive, Terrible Idea For The Future Of College [link]

Maria Bustillos, in a long piece in The Awl, brings some great clarity and perspective to the hype and bluster of the MOOC. This quote, from Aaron Bady, who recently touched off a storm with his piece on Inside Higher Ed, captures a bit of the flavor well:

The thing is, when you frame this as, “what does this give them for the rest of their lives?” one never really knows, and I think that’s the point; there is something, but it’s something we’re all discovering together. When we reduce education to job training; when we reduce it to, “we need X skills, so let’s do whatever causes X skill to come out,” you really close down all the possibilities.