CollegeQandA asks: Should I be using MOOCs in conjunction with my typical college education?

Should you be doing MOOCs while you’re doing your normal courses?

If you haven’t heard of MOOCs (massive online open courses) then, briefly, they are, as the acronym says, big courses that you can do online.  There are a number of platforms that provide MOOCs such as Coursera, Udacity, edX, and Khan academy.  Universities sometimes are hosted on these platforms or offer their own MOOCs.  The topics covered in these MOOCs are vast and varied. There is a heavy focus on computer science because of the link between MOOCs and technology, but most fields have some course covering almost all the intro courses and some more advanced courses.  These courses can be offered for free, or if there is some sort of qualification, then you pay for the verified assessment and credential.

Highland CowThe bigger philosophy behind the MOOC is that modern technology allows some of the best teachers to provide instruction at a mass scale beyond the walls of traditional universities and college.  Early research has shown some successes, but other results that even though these courses have massive enrollment, the success rate can be much lower than typical classrooms (in the 5 to 20% range).  Even the successful students are already familiar with the material and self select.

So, are MOOCs going to be useful to you and your education?

It depends.

Let me, first, describe my MOOC experiences.  My first course was a google search course.  The time commitment was around 8 hours and I learned a few ideas to improve my search skills.  Next, I enrolled in one of the earlier Artificial Intelligence courses that I soon dropped out of, because I couldn’t spend the ten plus plus hours a week needed to complete the assignments.  I didn’t do any more online courses for a few years until recently in my research leave where I completed both Learning How to Learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects and Mindshift: Break Through Obstacles to Learning and Discover Your Hidden Potential in the last two months (both courses are offered for free on Coursera).  Finally, I enrolled for a course on teaching, but dropped it shortly after enrolling because of the time commitment.

In all of this, my key take away is that time is a huge factor for me, and I need more then a passing interest to commit to a course.  I, personally, am not interested in the online peer community, and my lack of commitment to community (online) is a big loss in this form of education.  Also, the courses I tend to complete have shallow assessments, such as quizes, and I might argue that the skills that I’m learning from these courses are not that complex.  I, however, would highly recommend the two MOOCs listed above to everyone since they provide value regardless of what field you are studying in helping you manage time and learn.

So, should I?

In the bigger sense, I think MOOCs are great opportunities for you in non-semester time (the summer and breaks).  These courses require significant dedication, and unless you have a really light semester of traditional school work, I would stay away from them during your normal times.  The exceptions are:

  • Find a MOOC that parallels one of your traditional courses.  In this case, the MOOC is a potential secondary source of information to supplement your learning.  Personally, I’ve never had a chance to parallel a MOOC with a live course, but I suspect it would be a great opportunity.  If anyone has done this and wants to provide the rest of us with enlightenment, feel free to email me your thoughts and I’ll make a guest  post for the rest of us.
  • Doing a short course in the beginning of the semester when you have a little extra time.
  • Taking a meta-skill course such as Learning How to Learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master or Mindshift: Break Through Obstacles to Learning and Discover Your Hidden Potential since these types of courses will help you develop skills to succeed in your current courses.

Credits: Photo titled: Highland Cow by Mike Davison

Share

CollegeQandA says: Book done!!! and where we’re going next

It’s not a question, it’s a statement – Doing College Righter is done and published

Thanks to my editors, I have finished my book project, and I’ve sold more than I expected.   Take a look at Doing College Righter or click the picture below just to see the cover.

Doing College Righter

So what’s next?

Well, I’m on a research improvement leave at Boston University for 2017-18.  This means I need to produce some new work, which will take up most of my time.  That and we have a new member in our family.  Therefore, my goal for this site is to produce one post a month for the next 8 months.  My next post will be on a MOOC I’m doing.  From there we will see.

Share

CollegeQandA reviews: Teaching Minds: How Cognitive Science Can Save Our Schools

Book Review: Teaching Minds: How Cognitive Science Can Save Our Schools

Teaching Minds: How Cognitive Science Can Save Our Schools
 

Teaching Minds: How Cognitive Science Can Save Our Schools is an excellent book for teachers (and some learners) on what may be wrong with our teaching approach; it isn’t necessarily us, but might be an institutional situation.  After reading this book, I had to get back to blogging.  I’ve been trying to finish up my own book, and this book comes along and shatters/challenges/supports many of my previous perspectives on teaching in an elegant succinct way.

So, why is this book shattering some of my views on education?  Well, having read the book, many of the ideas line up well with preexisting beliefs I have about learning.  Dr. Schank, however, structures many of these ideas in a better way.

The major idea in the book is his clear explanation in chapter 4 of the “twelve cognitive principles that underlie learning”.   His main thesis is that these principles are captured in what we all do in our lives, jobs, and education, and that they should be a fundamental focus of learning as opposed to knowledge and content.  We tend to focus more on content than action.

The majority of the book looks at these principles and their application/relation to education.  A few other interesting aspects and ideas in the book include:

  • Chapter 11 shifts to an attack on colleges and universities, which includes many strong arguments on to what these institutions do and how they might be changed.
  • Schank states that teaching should not include the assigning of grades/marks by the teacher, and instead the assessment of performance should be done by a separate entity.
  • The idea that nothing can be learned if it doesn’t involve failure.
  • An examination or test implies that a field has a right way and a wrong way.

Does this book relate to CollegeQandA?

It’s all about teaching, learning, and universities.  In a way, I wish these were my ideas, and I’ll, likely, reference this book in future posts.

I would recommend this book to…

This book is written at a level appropriate for teachers.  I think the concepts are understandable by all, but many of the arguments drift into the world of higher ed and cognitive views that might not be at the level of college bound students.   However, I think this is a good book for everyone to take a look at to better understand learning and a bit of the why things are the way they are in education and how we might, possibly, do better.

Share

CollegeQandA asks: How do national politics and universities mix?

How do national politics and universities mix?

Into this rabbit hole we go since I’m late for a very important debate.  The complexity of this question is so deep that in this post I’ll just try to make an argument from the perspective one or two starting assumptions and see where this takes us.

Starting assumptions

Assumption 1 – universities are institutions of learning.

This assumption means that those of us at higher educational institutions are fundamentally there to learn.  This assumption captures both the ideas of research and education.

Assumption 2 – in a democratic society, national politics is about choosing representatives (by a form of majority selection) that will participate in the government systems of decisions that guides and runs a nation.

The  running a nation is far more complex than any one person can possibly understand, and therefore, most of our nations have created a system within which the economy, laws, social programs, and public infrastructure and services are created, administered, and funded.  Representatives in democratic governments modify, add, and delete parts of the system based on their decisions.

So where’s the intersection?

Not surprisingly the intersection itself is complex.  Many people at a university will study and participate in intersecting fields that relate to government such as political science, journalism, sociology, history, …  Universities will get funding, whether through grants, scholarships, or direct dollars that come from the government.  People at the institution (both students and staff) will be voters in the election.  Institutions will suggest policy ideas.  The intersection is massive and because of it the challenges are great on how to navigate changing politics of both institution and nation.

The real question

So, the real question is what is the role of higher education to the nation.  I pose two of many possibilities (with personal bias to 1):

  1. These institutions are places of inquiry and debate where all ideas are part of the open discussion and exploration.  Yes, ideas can be against your beliefs, but ideas should not be hidden just because they’re challenging to you.   This gets even trickier when ideas challenge a core value that many of us have for basic human rights (where human = all humans and rights = {I can’t define this well enough, but it’s related to the golden rule}).  Is there a limit on what ideas can be explored?
  2. These institutions are places of learning such that what is learned is, mainly, applicable to economic growth and older ideas, which includes students developing a better understanding of the world and being prepared to work within our national economies.

One more piece to the puzzle

Technology – Every new technology is a Pandora’s box that gives us benefits and costs, and each technology impacts the capabilities of us, our institutions, and our nation.  Computation, AI, DNA, nuclear energy, all-2-all communication on the internet, and so on allow us to do new things, but always come with some cost/change.

So, how should universities deal with politics while dealing with an ever changing technological world?  We should provide a space to discuss, debate, think, and question possibilities.  Where else is this going to happen?  Or, we can just ignore all of it – and read the next article in my feed.

Share

CollegeQandA asks: Should I be gaming the college system?

Should I be gaming the college system?

Gaming, in this sense, is pursuing an activity by satisfying requirements, but looking for and exploiting flaws in the rules of the system to easily and/or quickly achieve them outside the spirit of the system.  My definition does not make any mention that gaming a system is good or bad, and rule based systems are very difficult to make perfect and are almost all exploitable.

stacks of atari games

Gaming is fine depending on the goal

You have to have your own goals set to determine if gaming a system is a good or bad thing.  For example, in the tax system, if your goal is to maximize how much you and your family earn in a year, then any gaming rules that makes you pay less tax would be considered good.  Alternatively, if your goal is to help fund your societies infrastructure, then you should avoid loopholes and pay the tax that you believe your system requires.

What about education?

Again the goals you have are your guide.  Here are some examples of goals that suggest you should game the system and just get what you want:

  • I want a degree
  • I want to be called “Dr.”
  • I want letters beside my name
  • I want a 4.0 GPA
  • I want to say I’m an alumnus of school X
  • I want  degree Y so I can do activity Z

Here are some goals that suggest you should not worry about gaming the system, but instead learn the material and work hard:

  • I want to better understand how our world works
  • I want a career in field X
  • I want to develop my intellectual and cognitive abilities

Again, your goals are your goals, and I’m not here to judge there goodness or badness.  I’m, personally, biased to the later goals.  However, I think understanding the educational system and gaming it at certain times is a valid tactic.  For example, there are times in higher education where you are overwhelmed with work.  Tactically, selecting the highest priority/value work at those moments is a smart choice in my book.

Credits: photo titled: Games; by Axel Tregoning

Share

CollegeQandA asks: How do I write a great entrance essay that gets me into elite schools?

How do I write a great entrance essay that gets me into elite schools?

This is a post title that I’ve seen much of lately.  College bound students are trying to get in the best school possible.  The reason to do this is… what is the reason to go to the best most elite school?

"Elite" spraypaint art

Why go to school X?

My general opinion on choice of schools is to go

  • In state – because of lower costs and quality of education
  • Public – lower costs and quality of education
  • Community college – for first one or two years (if credits transfer) because of lower cost, quality of education, and low risk investment to test your motivation

In other words, find the lowest cost entry point to higher education in the beginning of your higher ed path to evaluate if the institution, degrees, and learning environment are worth the huge investment.

Are there reasons to divert from this?

Of course there are.  If you and your family have the means to send you anywhere, then you should go anywhere.  For the other 99% of us, then you should question why a special school is for you (also don’t go there just because of sports team X since you can wear sports team X’s clothing and still be a fan minus the thousands of dollars in education fees).

What are the benefits of private schools?  These schools have more control over what they focus on, where their money is allocated, and what their mission is as an institution.   Their alumni network will, typically, be strong.

What are the benefits of elite schools?  These schools have the benefits of private institutions plus – These schools tend to have a student body that self-selected as the high performers in traditional schooling.  These schools have a recognition signal  (how the world perceives them) that is known world-wide instead of state, regional, or nationwide.

Is the education better at more elite schools?

Possibly.  The best students, in theory, should provide an environment and community of deep thought, inquiry, and learning.  This isn’t always the case since competitive students can continue to compete to be the best of the best at the expense of helping and creating a great learning community.

I don’t think that undergraduate education at elite schools results in significantly different outcomes.  The exception is schools that provide unique cultures that tie well to existing trends such as entrepreneurship and nontraditional educational paths.

So how do you write that essay?

Good question.  I’m of the lesser group that never tried the route of the elite.  If I had to write an essay, I would probably write about LEGO and it’s future in education.  At least that would be interesting for me to write about.  Not sure I would get in, though.

Credits: photo titled: Elite; by Daniel Lobo

Share

CollegeQandA asks: Who assesses the assessors?

Who assesses the assessors?

To rephrase, is there any formal processes that checks if colleges, professors, and higher education are “good”.  Simply, are professors who assess students also assessed?  The simple answer is, yes, and professor assessment happens in a number of ways.

Measuring Tape up close

Promotion, Appointment, and Tenure

As an individual professor the main assessment is one or a combo of promotion, appointment, and/or tenure.

  • Tenure = typically, a decision based on a period of 3 or more years where the institution decides if you will be a member of the institution for the foreseeable future.  The criteria for tenure varies but factors in research productivity, teaching ability, and service to the university.
  • Promotion = this is an institutional decision to promote someone to a higher position.  This is similar to climbing the ladder in large corporations.  Criteria for promotion varies and are similar to tenure, but expectations tend to increase as the ladder is climbed.
  • Appointments = some institutions don’t have tenure and instead use X year appointments.  After X years are complete reappointment is determined based on meeting criteria similar to above.

In each of these individual assessments, a professor or educator is judged on criteria of productivity.  What this means to a student is that a “full professor” or “university professor” means that the person has been promoted to some of the highest levels of the institution, but it might be due to their research productivity more than their teaching ability (and typically this is more often the truth).  Higher ed is not just about learning at the undergraduate level, and a major push is learning at the frontier of human understanding.

Assessment agencies

Beyond the individual, there is also institutional assessments at every level.  For example, engineering departments have the option of being assessed and accredited by ABET.

For these types of accreditation (an award of meeting some standard set by the accreditation agency), programs have to show measurable results on various factors.  For example, what percentage of students are gainfully employed after graduation?  How many students are failing?  These measurements are an attempt to evaluate the institution and the quality of its respective programs.

A world of measuring and setting bars

The reality of assessment – student, professor, institution – is we like to measure things and set bars.  Look at all the school ratings that are generated each year.  With measurements we can compare us to you and you to us.  Is that a good thing?  My feel is that we overly rely on measurement, and the world is too complex to simply measure.

One of our next big philosophical leaps will come from a shift from our love of the simplicity of quantity.

Credits: photo titled: Measuring tape ; by Sean MacEntee

Share

CollegeQandA asks: What questions challenge your advisors/mentors?

What questions challenge your advisors/mentors?

The reality is the questions here are the big questions we all have.  In university, your mentors are great for asking simple questions to such as: “which course should I do next?” or “what are some good career options to look in to?”.  More complex questions, which are usually individual and deep personal searches, are hard for all of us.

Does that mean you shouldn’t have those discussions with your advisors and mentors?  No, but expect them to be long conversations that you will need to reflect on more than you possibly thought going in.

Person in meditation by water

So, what are these questions?

“What should I do with my life/career/major?”

Those are big questions.  Flavors of that question are hidden in others such as, “should I do this major or this major?” or “will I like this job?”

There are two certainties to deep questions of your future.  One, it’s a personal decision.  Two, the decision can be an educated decision, but is impossible to make as right or wrong – it is just a chosen path.

Find office hour times to have this discussion – quiet times are best

Your mentors and advisors can provide suggestions on how to help explore these questions, but they can not solve them for you.  For even something as simple as picking a major and what career will I have once I complete this major, all an advisor can tell you is where people have gone previously with certain paths, and provide insight on their own experiences and paths.

The bigger task is for you to determine which path you want to take now.  And here is the problem.  Not all paths can be taken.  Only one can be pursued.  At some point, you just have to make a decision and take a path.  Once on that path, observe opportunities and, potentially, take other paths.  A little bit of reflection and thought along the path will guide you in, hopefully, better directions for you, but the unpredictable is, well, unpredictable.

Credits: photo titled: Wisdom; by Moyan Brenn

Share

CollegeQandA asks: On the college tours, what should I ask?

What are some good questions to ask on the college tours?

It is college tour season.  I participated in my first faculty panel this month.  These panels have professors representing different parts of the school sitting and answering questions from prospective students and families.  This is one small piece of the college tour.  I sit on these panels fascinated by the questions that are asked.  I wonder if the questions I hear are the important questions to ask.

Tour guide pointing to statue

What is the goal of the tour?

The goal is to find out if this is the place that will be a good environment for your next 4 years of learning.  This means you are looking for a welcoming, challenging, engaging, and interesting environment.  So, why then is place X better than place Y?

What would be a good question?

The good questions will have answers that will help you differentiate between different places.  This means the questions should be open ended.  The questions should be related to the learning environment.  The questions should be about personal experiences (the bad and the good).

For example, a question such as: “How big are your classes?” will have many nuanced answers from place to place.  Based on the size of the university (student enrollment) and the type of classrooms (how many large lecture rooms) you can easily guess to this answer.  They start bigger and progress to smaller, but this answer doesn’t give you any idea of the experience.

A better question might be: “How does your college make bigger lecture classes into good learning environments?”  That’s a very tricky question for a professor, and if they aren’t aware that there are different ways of improving learning, then maybe that university isn’t particularly interested in undergraduate education.  “How did you like your lecture with 100+ students?”, will get to a students perspective on the large lectures.

Similarly, “Can you describe a situation where you did a research project with a student/faculty member?”  This is another question that looks into the idea that undergraduates are doing research-like activities at this university.  What is actually being learned and what are undergraduates actually doing?

Follow these questions up with, “Can I get their email to find out more about their experience?” and “Can you name professors/students in your department who have done things like this?”

Questions that delve into personal experiences at a university will go deeper into the experience at said university instead of generalities.  Also, try and talk to people who are not directly involved in the college tours.  What do the non-groomed faces of the institution have to say?

What questions are bad?

The bad questions tend to include superficial questions (how big is the dorm rooms?), mechanical questions (are there internships available?), or too focused on a particular path (how hard is it to switch from major X to major Y?).

The first two questions can be asked via email or a web search and tell you very little about this particular university.  All universities have very similar offerings, will offer similar good rankings, will show how past students have been successful, and will have all sorts of statistics that are in favour of the school.  Therefore, asking these types of questions allows for the toured presentation to talk about things that don’t really matter in respect to what is the university offering to you and how it differs from your other potential options.

The last question is too specific to an upcoming experience (undergraduate degree) that is very difficult to plan out from day one to day 1200.

Credits: photo titled: Guided Tour; by Mads Bødker

Share

CollegeQandA asks: What will be on the test?

What will be on the test?

This question can also be phrased, “will this be on the test?”

For students, this is an important question.  For teachers, this is a frustrating question to hear more than once.  How do you figure out what’s on the test, but also, turn yourself into a good learner and not just a test gamer?

FRustrated man screaming

Student perspective of tests

Tests are pretty common in courses.  Tests can be one of the main assessments that then are converted into your overall grade in a course.  Students need to get good grades, and therefore, knowing and understanding what is on a test is fundamental to getting those good grades.

Teacher perspective of tests

Learning the material is common in all courses.  Tests can be a good and easier than others assessment that shows if students have learned the course material.  An overall grade shows how well students have learned the material (though I don’t really agree with this).  Testing helps determine a students grade in the course.

Some of education’s bigger perspective

The goal is to learn.  Real understanding can not be easily tested, and the learning process takes a significant amount of time for both teacher and student to achieve and assess.  How can we teach and learn important skills, understanding, and complexities with tests?  We probably can’t, and equally, grades are a poor signal in terms of how each of us will perform in the real world with complexity.

The reality perspective

So, you are going to have tests as a student, and many of us professors will use tests as time-reasonable assessments for what you understand in our courses.  Coming from a perspective of wanting to learn and understand and willingness to work on learning, be curious, and understand the world better will serve you well.

If you need to figure out what is, likely, on the test, then pay attention to your professor in lectures, do the class work (readings, assignments, and projects), and find more senior students to understand past testing trends.  In lecture, emphasis of ideas, points, and skills are strong indicators that the material will appear on a test.  Does the professor underline writing?  Is there a significant number of problems dedicated to a particular idea?  Many professors (myself included) plain and simple say, “and this would be an excellent question on an exam”.  Those signals are strong indicators that the material will be tested in the future.

Also, the past can be a strong predictor of the future.  Students who have previously taken the course will have a feel for what professors will ask on their exams.  Make friends with other students and ask about their experiences.  However, understand that we all have biases and you are the one who does or doesn’t benefit from learning.

Credits: photo titled: frustration; by Rakesh Rocky

Share