Khan Academy Founder Proposes a New Type of College – Wired Campus – The Chronicle of Higher Education

Khan Academy Founder Proposes a New Type of College – Wired Campus – The Chronicle of Higher Education:

“Existing campuses could move in this direction by de-emphasizing or eliminating lecture-based courses, having their students more engaged in research and co-ops in the broader world, and having more faculty with broad backgrounds who show a deep desire to mentor students,” he writes.

Hmm, practical, hands-on experience with strong mentoring through relationships with faculty. Sounds familiar, but can’t quite place it.

Questions about science at a liberal arts college

I spent the day Saturday in New Orleans at the , doing my best impression of a recruiter. My department is for a new faculty colleague whose research area (ideally) spans cellular/molecular neuroscience and microbiology. Given that there have been some splashy publications in this area lately, we’re hoping we can find a good bluehost match. Given the somewhat unusual coupling of neuroscience and microbiology, we felt it would be a smart move to go and make the case to a few hundred potential job seekers, and in retrospect it was time well spent. I spoke personally with probably a half-dozen scientists who seemed keen on our position and planned to submit their materials.

On the other hand, a few of the other conversations were, how shall I put it, less than productive. Any good teacher is always quick to point out that there are no stupid questions. While that may be true in the classroom, or at least express an honorable sentiment, it doesn’t apply to every situation. If you’ve stumbled upon this post, think of this as some advice for what not to ask about a faculty position in science at a liberal arts college.

Q: So how much would I have to teach?

Really? This is your first question? This is a little like inquiring about a job as a personal trainer and asking ‘how much would I have to work out?’ Teaching is what we do at a liberal arts college, almost everything takes a back seat to teaching. That doesn’t mean we don’t do research, but we almost never do it instead of teaching. In an ideal world, your research complements your teaching, allowing you to use it as a tool in your teaching. Most of us could probably advance more quickly working alone our own research than we can with students, but the whole point of being here is to help mentor and train students. So you have to be at least as interested in helping facilitate those A-ha! moments for students as you are in your actual research questions.

(To answer your question, we teach between 10 and 12 ‘contact hours’ — hours spent in front of a class or lab — per week. For example, most semesters that means 2 lecture classes and 2 lab sections.)

Does your department provide TA support for your grad students?

Unfortunately no, because there are no grad students, we are an undergraduate liberal arts college.

But wait, I thought you said you were expected to do research. Who does the research if you don’t have grad students?

Ah, good question (not really, just trying to be nice). Remember how I was talking about mentoring and training undergraduate students? You guessed it, they do the actual research with you. Let me sketch out the picture for you: You are in your lab, doing the research, and they are there with you, also doing the research.

Does this actually work? Do you ever publish anything?

I’m glad you asked! Yes, in fact, this does work. Of the 14 faculty members across the life sciences at OWU, all of us have at least one peer-reviewed publication within the last 3 years. Almost all of those include student authors, some of them include student first authors. Are these in Science and Nature? Not often, no. But if the thought of publishing a student-authored research paper in a respectable journal does not excite you at least as much as a publication in one of the big three, you should probably just move along, nothing to see here. To us, there is simply nothing better than watching (and facilitating) your undergraduate students on their path to becoming independent scientists.

But if I have to be in the lab actually doing the research, who will write the grant proposals to fund all the post-docs and technicians?

I can see you’re really starting to connect (some of) the dots, that’s good. You will not have to worry about carrying 7 post-docs and 2 technicians, because you couldn’t convince a post-doc to come work with you in a million years. ‘The system’ is set up in such a way that post-docs need to make as much data as possible, as fast as possible. Working with you and your undergraduate students is not conducive to fast data-making. Post-docs would take one look at your first-year students re-using the same pipette tip for both primers and the template in a PCR and run away in terror.

Given the large teaching load, how often does the neurotransmitter re-uptake journal club meet?

Even less often than you might expect, given that you would be the only one here who works on neurotransmitter transporters, or signaling in general, or does any form of molecular/cellular neuroscience at all! Take heart though, after you have been here a few years, you can start a journal club with the students you have mentored, the purpose of which will be, you guessed it, teaching.

It sounds like I’ll have to teach a lot. Will I have to teach things outside my main area of interest, which is neurotransmitter re-uptake transporter antagonist structure and function?

Only if you consider almost every other topic that has to do with cells or molecules to be outside your area of interest.

What do you mean when you say, “…and also participate in service to the department and university”?

This is really not a big deal, it’s just minor work involving questions like should this faculty member receive tenure? and which department has the greatest need for a new faculty position? and how can we work with the administration to find a way to increase salaries, which haven’t kept up with the cost of living in 20 years? And sometimes you’ll be asked to help with student recruitment by attending an event, hosting students in your classes, meeting with parents, or traveling to a college fair, but this doesn’t happen any more than once a week.

Wrapping Up

I don’t want any of this to come across as (entirely) snarky and sarcastic, everything above should be read in good humor. I do think it’s important that you know what you’re getting into with a position at a liberal arts college. Many prospective faculty members have only ever seen the academic job market from the viewpoint of their advisor at a large, research university. Those positions are great and vitally important to the research enterprise, but they are not primarily about teaching undergraduates. Here’s one way to think about it: if you want your career advancement to be tied mostly to your research productivity, don’t come to a small liberal arts college, go to a big university. But if you want your rewards and incentives to be tied to your teaching excellence while still maintaining an active research program, let’s talk. Even if you work on neurotransmitter re-uptake transporter antagonist structure and function.

Clicker questions from an iPad

I’m using my iPad to present the key points at the start of each class, and yesterday I wanted to ask some interactive clicker-type questions with , like I had done . Students could submit responses via text message, but I immediately ran into a problem with students trying to respond via the web. phentermine The was loading, but indicating that there was no active poll for them to respond to. I didn’t realize that in order to accept responses over the web you need to be running the questions from a computer with Flash. Their FAQ seems to assume this, at least, so I figured I was out of luck with the iPad.

Then I stumbled upon a blog post on their site announcing their , which perfectly solves the problem. It allows you to fully control the polling process from a tablet or smartphone just by going to a . Here you can create new polls, stop and start polls, and push polls to . This is exactly what I needed, and I’m looking forward to trying it tomorrow in class. My only suggestion for them is to add this somewhere on their so it’s more easily discovered.

Reflections on the thinking classroom

Now that I’ve sent the first exam over to the copy center, I thought it would be a good time to reflect on my with the Intro Cell Bio class. In short, I set out to lecture far less, expect students to read in advance, and use class time to work problems, questions, and (small) case studies. So how’s it going, and where can I improve?

I have definitely been refraining from long lectures so far, with the longest one clocking in around 30 min (I think). I’m really trying to focus on the highlights from the text and respond to student confusion. The material thus far has not been all that challenging, so I anticipate more student questions as we move deeper into the material. It’s amazing to watch the class though, and even after 20 min of talking at them, some of them are clearly disengaging, especially if there are no slides. I have prepared slides for last two topics, and that seems to keep their interest up longer, plus I think they feel secure knowing better what to “put down” in their notes.

I can’t tell whether students are actually reading more or not. I thought with the new text being more focused on a single topic that I explicitly assigned for a particular date that they would have an easier time keeping up. I’m not quizzing them on the readings, but that might be a good way to encourage a deeper reading ahead of time. I think having a better linkage between the content in the reading and the problem/question/case for the day would also be an improvement.

The in-class work has been hit-and-miss. I feel like some days I managed to provide excellent chances for them to sink their teeth into a question, while others were much more mundane and less engaging. Several times I’ve had them focus on food as a means to apply the material (carbohydrates, lipids) and make the class more relevant for the Food adipex Course Connection. The best class by far, at least in my opinion, was one focused on a medical case study. It was abbreviated from its original version, but there was enough information in it for them to gain the background they needed to ‘solve’ the case questions. I guess I’ll find out from their first exams whether the approach is paying off.

Re-imagining my intro biology class – First steps

I spent the better part of the morning today beginning to re-imagine my intro biology class for the fall, even though I should probably be doing other things more related to research. I’m taking advantage of switching to a new textbook to revamp the whole class from the ground up. Here are my main objectives with the rewrite:

  • spend as little time as possible “covering” material in class
  • use class time to allow students to interact with concepts and apply ideas to real-world problems in small groups rather than transcribing lecture notes

My approach relies heavily on students having read the material before class, so I’m starting with the readings. The Principles site makes it relatively easy to customize the readings, including both the selection and order. It’s a little annoying that their metaphor is “customizing a book” and then “publishing” the custom text. I would like it better if it were easier to add, subtract, and move modules around more dynamically as I assign due dates and create assignments. But other than that, it doesn’t try to impose any additional structure on the course, which I like. I’ve complained before about the proliferation of buckets in the LMS (pages, content, files, documents, etc), and this site does not use such arbitrary categories.

The main thing I’m struggling with is predicting how much time I’ll need for each topic and set of objectives. It’s hard to get out of the mindset of, “How long will it take to walk through this topic from start to finish in front of the class” and instead think about questions, projects, and problems that would help the students apply and synthesize these concepts. I have to admit, at this point sticking with the tried-and-true lecture format sounds much easier, but I really want to try something new (and hopefully more effective).

Students becoming less dependent on physical books?

Inside Higher Ed has an update on electronic textbook adoption which is mostly uninteresting to me except for this bit:

Nevertheless, students’ allegiance to print appears to be eroding; among those who did not purchase a digital text, only 39 percent said they “prefer traditional print textbooks” — down from 50 percent two years ago and 59 percent three years ago.

Student habit and comfort level is one of the hardest things to change, and this survey suggests that college students are quickly dropping their insistence on a physical, paper book. If this is true, this will open up the field to all kinds of experimental approaches to textbooks. I’ll be finding out soon enough with my fall class how comfortable students are with a fairly radical electronic “book”.

Problems with the monolithic LMS

The LMS Product – limitations and alternative « The Weblog of (a) David Jones:

Another characteristic of an integrated system is that the quality of the tools available is limited to those provided by a single vendor or community.

I resonate with many of the points he brings up about the weaknesses of a monolithic LMS, and the discussion on the post is also top-notch, highlighting the requisition process and its influence on the vendors’ offerings.

When I really stop to think about it, all we (as faculty) would need is a more federated identity system, so that we could choose the tool we wanted and our students wouldn’t have to create a new account to manage on whatever platform we selected. The only real down side to my using Canvas last spring was this need to register and create an account. The students told me they didn’t mind doing that at all, but it still feels a bit out-of-bounds to have their identity managed by a non-institutional entity. I’d guess there are FERPA rules against it that I’ve probably violated, but oh well.

Switching to an online-only biology textbook

Now that summer session is behind me, I’m looking forward to starting to work on my Intro Cell Biology class for the fall. This year I’ve adopted a new textbook that is completely online, Principles of Biology. It is published by Nature Education as part of their Principles of Science series of textbooks. I’ve taught the class three times now, each time using the massive Raven Biology textbook. So why switch?

The short answer is, so that my students will read the text. With the encyclopedic Raven text, I found that the material for any given class topic was spread across a large swath of the book, with plenty of distraction that I had to ask the students to skip or ignore temporarily. With the Principles book, it is broken down into modules, each of which seems to be much more digestible at a single sitting. My hope is to be able to assign a module per class session, sometimes two, and expect that the students will arrive having read it already. That way, we can spend our time together discussing the topic in small groups and attempting to apply it to a real-life problem or question in biology rather than plowing through the material and introducing everything.

I do have some hesitations though, the first of which is that students really like to have a physical textbook. No matter how much they complain about cost and weight, they feel secure just holding their book. With an online-only text, I worry they will feel like they still need to buy a “real” book. I plan to discourage them from this as much as possible, but they may still buy it. Which brings me to my second concern, that our other introductory course is still using the Raven text. For the past 3 years, students who’ve taken both intro courses have been able to use the same text for both. Given that it costs nearly $US200, that was at least some consolation. I was unable to convince any of my colleagues who teach the other course to adopt the Nature Principles text yet, although many expressed interest in it for the future.

Why this text, though, and not just the eText version of Raven? I’ve addressed that at length in previous posts, but suffice to say I’m not a big fan of most of the eText versions I’ve seen, with the exception of the Inkling version. The others are poor quality, difficult to read, and have a strict time limit (they expire). I’ve provided links to the etext versions the past two years, but none of the students have opted for it. With the Principles book, the students are buying lifelong access to a quality text (and other ancillary tools) from a highly reputable source, and the cost is far cheaper than the others. It just seems like a better deal all around. I’ll be writing here about the process of customization as I build my course, so check back as the summer wears on.

Canvas is a Delightful Departure

As I’ve shared previously, I’m restless with the technology I use for teaching, especially the LMS. Rather than only complain about it, I choose to experiment with other tools in the hope that I’ll find a better fit for my style. This term I’m experimenting with Canvas, the latest darling of the educational tech scene, and I’ve found its excellent reputation to be mostly well-deserved.

For starters, the fact that I can use it to host an actual class is the result of the fact that Canvas is a cloud-based LMS that is free for individual faculty members. The only practical limitations that I’ve found include a cap on the storage space per class and the need to upload my own roster and ask students to create accounts. Neither of these have been big points of pain for me, but if you need to host many large presentation files you may run out of storage space or have to rotate files off throughout the semester.

In the big picture, these are low costs to pay for the chance to use an LMS with an elegant user interface and straightforward usability features. If you are of the opinion that “design” is just how something looks, I challenge you to compare Canvas to the other big LMS out there. You will conclude that design is how something works, it’s made that well.

That said, there are still unintuitive aspects to its design. For example, my class just completed peer reviews of a writing assignment. These reviews were a cinch to assign, and I assumed the students would see their assignment in their ‘Recent Activity’ stream. But to get their assignment, they had to go to the assignment page and look for it, something that never occurred to any of them. Thirteen email replies later and lots of links to the help section, the problem was solved, but still, it might be nice if they could add this to the activity stream.

I still don’t want to rely on an LMS completely, at least in part for philosophical reasons, I’ll admit. But Canvas has been great for what I’ve used it to do, and it’s made it dead simple to do paperless grading (their Speedgrader iPad app is excellent). I don’t feel like I have to feed it my whole course, to fill in all the spaces with content. It works for what I want it to do, and stays out of my face for the rest. That’s pretty good, I’d say.