Collaborative Learning & Piazza

Last week in my technology and education class, one of the instructors introduced us to a site where anyone with a .edu email address can create an interactive learning space where the students can connect and ask and answer questions. Piazza allows the instructor to monitor the activity, and correct any misconceptions.  I have the ability to add my imprimatur of approval on student replies to questions.  This “central clearing house” for questions will allow me to respond to questions that an individual may have and make the answer visible to all.  This technology should help facilitate student learning by allowing them to teach one another.  I made the website available to the class last weekend, and the jury is still out.  They are scheduled to take an exam tomorrow, so the true test of student adoption will come tonite.

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Educate or perish!

My technology and education class has spent considerable time in recent weeks discussing how people learn, what constitutes learning, and what we, as educators, can do to facilitate learning. We analyzed different taxonomies of learning that ranged from a simple hierarchical model (Bloom’s Taxonomy) to one that is circular (Shulman’s Table of Learning).  The model that resonated the most with me was the Structure of Observed Learning Outcomes (SOLO). This model seems to best capture how learning is iterative and cumulative. One must have a certain requisite amount of knowledge in order to progress, and that once a certain “critical mass” is obtained, the learner can then make connections that transcend the sum of the accumulated information acquired to date. At this point, information and knowledge become systemic and interwoven – threads lead to new threads, and new connections are made that link to past knowledge to create new knowledge. When it works, it’s a beautiful thing.

As educators, we are tasked with helping students on this journey from information absorption to knowledge creation. There are tools we can use, and we must avail ourselves of them. These tools include such techniques as “active learning,” where learners become dynamic participants in the learning process.

Regardless of how far from our comfort zones these techniques may be, it is imperative that we embrace them.  Failure to succeed in this endeavor may very well lead to our demise. If we are unable to successfully compete with the plethora of quality on-line content available we may end up driving the equivalent of a horse and buggy in the era of planes, trains and automobiles. Indeed, a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education prophesied such an outcome, asking the question of whether Universities would follow Borders Bookstores into oblivion? The article noted that many colleges (and professors) were mere bystanders as the maelstrom of the on-line educational revolution swirled around them.

We should consider ourselves served with adequate warning to either educate or perish (although we still have to publish).

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There was a sprited discussion last week in my Teaching, Learning & Technology class centered on evaluation and assessment.  The first problem centered on who is really evaluated – the teacher or the student?  Aren’t student learning evaluations actually an assessment of a teachers’ abilty to teach?  Do we want to evaluate a deeper level on knowledge where students can apply a “web of learning” and use a metacognitive approach, thus helping students to control their own learning?  Doing so invites bias in evaluation.  It is far easier to evaluate understanding of simple rules and concepts.  Suffice it to say that no firm conclusions were reached.

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Curation of Information

A recent class session centered on educators’ role as curators of information.  I had never really considered teachers and professors to be aggregators of knowledge, but rather disseminators thereof.  Upon further reflection however, it became apparent that with the explosion of information available, filters of that information become imperative.  Who better to serve as those filters than the subject matter experts?  Educators lie at a unique intersection between information and consumers of knowledge.  By analyzing, categorizing and aggregating the best of what is available in their chosen field, educators are in a position to provide “the best of the best” and ignore the rest.  I have come to accept this responsibility.  This blog is the first step in that process.

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Another view of social media.

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Twitter for Academics

I have been perusing a variety of resources extolling the benefits of incorporating Twitter into the academic environment.  One such resource is an article by K. Walsh in EmergingEdTech.  This article provides links to several other articles that tout the virtues of Twitter in the classroom.  While I can appreciate the validity of the technology in certain circumstances, I see little functionality at the introductory level of Accounting education that is not already provided by Blackboard (without the de facto content limitations).  Most of the applications are more appropriate for “soft sciences.”


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Eat the Rich

As an educator, I am paid to elucidate complex concepts and explain them in a manner that is understandable to my students and I am confident in, and proud of my ability to do so.  It is frustrating therefore, when I am unable to convey basic economic truths to an acquaintance.  A gentleman and I were having a spirited but good-natured debate about tax policy, and what I believe is the fallacy of taxing the rich, but I was unable to get him to acknowledge certain economic facts (it should be noted that this individual felt justifiably proud of his vote for Jimmy Carter and every Democratic nominee since).  When he tried to justify the mandate to purchase health insurance currently pending before the Supreme Court, he couldn’t see Robert Heinlein’s logic that “there is no worse tyranny than to force a man to pay for what he does not want merely because you think it would be good for him.”

I felt as though I had come face to face with the truism of Laurence Peters who noted that “against logic there is no armor like ignorance”  (sorry, Carlton).  This post is motivated in part to provide empirical justification for the points I attempted to make, yet he was unwilling or unable to believe or accept.

Whether we acknowledge it or not, as a nation we are in severe economic trouble.  The National Debt stands in excess of $15.3 Trillion, and increasing at an increasing rate which currently stands at about $10 Billion per day.  The national debt currently stands at 99.7% of GDP, and has increased 40% since the current administration took office.  My colleague stressed that the expenditures were necessary to “save the country,” and while I acknowledge that TARP was probably necessary, but much of the stimulus was not.  Government cannot spend money that it has not confiscated from the private sector first.  My own research showed that in Virginia at least, much of the stimulus was used to satisfy pre-existing debt, and hence did nothing to stimulate the economy.   In general, I agree with Frank Borman who noted that “capitalism without bankruptcy is like Christianity without hell.”

He refused to accept that about half of all US household paid no federal income tax.  These data are readily available from the Congressional Budget Office or in chart form (using CBO numbers) from the Heritage Foundation.  These data show that in 2008, top 10% of wage earners paid 69.94% of taxes, while bottom 50% paid 2.7% and 49% paid none.  Ezra Kline of the Washington Post (no conservative shill, to be sure) provided meaning behind the numbers.

One interesting analogy was made by Bill Whittle in a short video vignette.  He showed that there weren’t enough rich people in America to pay for our annual expenditures.  Take a few minutes and check out Eat the Rich.  Confiscating wealth is not the answer to our nation’s ills.

Perhaps Winston Churchill said it best: “for a nation to try to tax itself into prosperity is like a man standing in a bucket and trying to lift himself up by the handle.”

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The Plaid Avenger!

A recent class discussion centered on how to engage students in the educational process.  It seems that one professor from Virginia Tech has come up with an interesting twist on engagement by employing a multi-pronged approach to learning the topic of international relations through the lens of “The Plaid Avenger!”

Front Cover

The project began as a textbook designed as a graphic novel, and has expanded into a series of such novels covering a variety of topics within the genre of international relations and an extensive array of on-line content including interviews, live interactive video office hours, profiles of international leaders, interactive forums and video instruction conducted by none other than the Plaid Avenger himself

In his own words, the Plaid Avenger describes himself as a “masked alter ego who can cunningly chameleon himself into any culture with his stylish use of retro 1970’s menswear, find out the facts, and then devise devilishly clever ways to captivate his students with the in-depth knowledge they need to understand the world when he returns to the classroom…Educating and illuminating students about what is happening out in the world, getting them fully engaged in the globalized 21st century,  and instilling a lifelong curiosity to keep up with planetary happenings. In this pursuit, the Plaid Team has experimented with radical new concepts in education, and the delivery mechanisms for material itself.   The Plaid Avenger’s World is a radical departure from the boring, painful to read,  encyclopedic-style tripe that students have come to accept as the only option for textbooks….”

In a recent interview, John Boyer (the Plaid Avenger’s alter ego) described the genesis of this innovative project as the answer to a simple question: “Why does all education have to be confined to classroom spaces?”, and noted that “education is something you should be doing your whole life.”

Hear! Hear!

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More on-line educational resources

My last post detailed information about MIT’s initiative to make high quality content available on-line for free.  At the time, I had assumed that the content available through MITx open courseware was relatively unique, so imagine my surprise when I was exposed to many similar sites that offer educational content in a variety of formats.

For example, Yale University offers about 35 complete courses in a video lecture format.  The interested learner would find a topic of interest such as Physics, select a class such as Fundamentals, then choose to view a 50 minute lecture on Thermodynamics or Newton’s laws out of a list of about 20 different topics.  Video lectures are available in such diverse fields as Chemistry, Appreciation of Music, The American Revolution, or the Introduction to the Old Testament.

Flatworld knowledge offers free textbooks.

Academic Earth provides a variety of coursework from some of the most prestigious universities in the country including MIT, Yale, Michigan, NYU, UNC, USC, Princeton, Stanford and Harvard.

OpenStudy is a social learning network where students ask questions, give help and connect with other students.  Another site of this sort is Piazza.  This site supports individual classes, where the instructor can monitor exchanges between students, and weigh in as necessary.

Peer to Peer University is an online community of open study groups for short university level classes.

Perhaps my favorite is the Kahn Academy,  Kahn Academy began as a man trying to help his nephews with their homework.  It has the feel of the teacher writing on the screen and explaining complex topics in an engaging and informative manner.  This site appeals to learners of all ages with topics ranging from introductory algebra to time value of money to micro and macro economics to statistics to GMAT and SAT preparation to biology to plate tectonics.  Pretty Cool!

Other resources include The Saylor Foundation   the University of the People,   Carnegie Mellon , and the Open Courseware Consortium

Take some time and check out these resources.  You may learn something when you least expect it.

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MIT offers credential certification for on-line classes

A recent article posted on The Chronicle of Higher Education’s website details information about MIT’s initiative to provide official certification for completion of on-line content.

This certification will provide credibility for on-line learners through knowledge assessment to ensure mastery of the subject matter.  Previously, the opencourseware project provided no such avenue for legitimacy.  It should be noted that although MIT will be offering credentialing for select courses, such certification is not equivalent to an MIT degree or whether such course work will be accepted as transfer credits at other institutions of higher learning.  MIT is planning on offering the credentials at a nominal fee, while the course work currently available will remain free.  I could find no information about how the assessments would be performed or how the integrity of the credentialing process would be ensured.

The volume and quality of coursework currently available is really quite astounding.  A quick perusal of the course catalogue revealed a class in financial accounting taught by one of the preeminent scholars in the field (SP Kothari of the Sloan School of Management).   Over 2000 classes are available, many with audio/visual content, in such diverse fields as aeronautics, biology, finance, economics, etc.

The offering of such high quality on-line content from such a prestigious institution may fundamentally change the landscape of higher education.

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