THE (Thinking Higher Education).

Well, if you’ve survived the MIKE post and the SWEDE post, you’ve probably guessed that I like acronyms. However, TMASTB (Too Many Acronyms Spoil The Broth), so I’ll present one more and go back to discussing other issues. However, these three acronyms together will drive a lot of what I talk about and, with any luck, I’ll have strangers around the world muttering “MIKE THE SWEDE” at each other.

I’m not holding my breath.

There are so many different ways to educate, some many different environments, students and teachers, choosing an approach that will work can sometimes appear to be an overwhelmingly difficult problem. How do I cater for everyone? How do I deal with large ranges in ability? How can I be fair to all the groups I deal with and, at the same, fair to myself and my own family, giving myself enough time to work and live.

This is where “THE” comes in. I’m not trying to solve every educational problem, I’m thinking about higher education. The students that I deal with have already shown that they can handle education to some extent, whether traditional classroom-based study, collaborative group learning in more experimental frameworks or home-schooling. They have passed sufficient entry requirements to attend classes at my institution. They can read. They can write. They are fundamentally numerate. They may have pre-requisite subject requirements to meet on top of this. For example, all of my students have at least one course of mathematics to the matriculation level. As an educator, I have so much to be grateful for in that a lot of the hard work has already been done by the educators before me, who excited these students about learning, who gave them the basis upon which they could develop to the point that they made it to me. For the families who supported them, or the groups that supported the students or the families when they families couldn’t do it by themselves.

I looked into publishing a book once, on computerising wineries (previous career), and I attended a really interesting workshop on pitching books to publishers. One of the most important pieces of advice was that no book was ever really suitable for ‘all ages from 8 to 80’, so don’t claim it. Work out who your book is for, write it for that group and then advertise it correctly. Who should my courses be suitable for? What do they come in with? What do I want them to leave with? How do I tell people that they will benefit from this course so come and try it?

Thinking Higher Education means thinking about students who have already demonstrated an ability to work within our systems, who have already stuck at education for 12+ years and who most likely perfectly capable of passing our courses, if we keep them engaged, do our jobs properly and their own lives don’t get in the way. Yes, there will be ranges of ability and dedication, but these tend to be smaller than are seen in the early primary or early secondary years. The kids who caused lots of trouble in class probably aren’t here anymore although, with any luck, they’ll sort themselves out in a while and we’ll welcome them back as mature-aged students with open arms. Yes, you’ll have mature-aged students sitting next to 17 year olds and you’ll need to think about that but if they’re sitting in your course then they need (and sometimes even want) you to teach them. Or to give them the right environment in which they can teach themselves. But they all need the same thing and, theoretically, they are on a much tighter track in their quest for degree completion than trying to match the diverse requirements of a group of 15 year olds sitting in an English class.

It’s not impossible. It’s certainly not easy and it doesn’t downgrade the role of a University educator but, despite having students from all over the world, the country, the age groups, the demographic spectrum – we can manage this problem and share our knowledge.

So THE is a positive thing, a reminder that our job is manageable, an appreciation of the work that has been carried out before by our colleagues in schools, a mark of respect to their successes and an awareness that students come to us with a great deal of potential and previous experience, both of which will shape their future.

Putting it together – Measurement, Environmental Awareness and Managing Scale, you get MIKE THE SWEDE.

Happy muttering!

(No more new acronyms for at least a few days, I promise!)



SWEDE: Scale Will Eventually Demolish Everyone

Yes, I like acronyms – a good acronym is memorable, meaningful and it makes you think. I wanted to explain why measurement was so important in the previous post but I neglected to tell you why I thought that we had to consider changing our learning and teaching approaches in the first place. So here’s my next higher ed teaching maxim – Scale Will Eventually Demolish Everyone. Even if we don’t change what we do, we have to be aware of why change should be considered and I want to give you a reason that doesn’t require you to have a fervent commitment to the nature of assessment or new technology. I’ll appeal to your existing knowledge – that you’re already too busy and things are getting busier.

Why do we even have to think about change? The first reason is that things change. New technologies become available, student expectations change, materials change – things change. The second reason is that we now have a lot of students in tertiary education and, if your government is anything like mine, the goal is to increase that number. We may not necessarily have more students in a given classroom, although that is a likely outcome, but we may certainly be teaching more students. We are already teaching a very large number of students and we are a long way from sitting around the agora in small groups, listening to someone who, through Socratic technique, will take three to four years to guide us towards mature and complete knowledge. Some techniques just don’t scale and we have to recognise this, while still providing as many, if not all, the benefits of our knowledge to our students, regardless of how many are in our classes.

I have taught classes as small as 7 and as large as 360, I know that some of you handle much larger and you have my deepest sympathies, and I cannot apply the same techniques in both and expect the same results, unless I work out how to handle the scale. An individual only has 168 hours in each week, fewer if they have the audacity to sleep or eat. Even if we were devoted beyond belief, lecturing, assessment and marking load will eventually reach a point where we cannot handle any more. Reduce this 168 to a (marginally) manageable 70-80 hours to allow for sleep and some outside activities and we can handle half the students. But I still need to pass my knowledge on, encourage them, give them feedback, provide assignment work and examinations, mark everything, give it back in a timely fashion and be what I am supposed to be, doing what I’m supposed to do.

Sometimes we handle scale through the use of other people – TAs, marking teams – and this certainly works. But it’s usually not the same as us, the lecturer, being there, unless you’re very lucky in the way that your teams are made up. There should be a reason that we’re there, that the students want to come and listen to us, to discuss the knowledge with us, to learn from us and while there is certainly a place for other people, including using students themselves, we have to think about how we are going to do it properly and in a way that scales to the right level while providing everything that the students need. This places an obligation on us to provide quality control for external marking, to provide strong guidance and rubrics for markers, for learning how to control the class when it moves in and out of ‘nearest neighbour answer checking’, to think about all of the techniques that could be used to increase the quality of our teaching while recognising the pragmatic limitations imposed upon us by the tyranny of scale. Among many, many other things.

We can handle scale if we make sensible use of existing techniques, actively search out new ones (whether philosophical, pedagogical or electronic), assess how we are meeting (or not meeting) our goals and we are clear about what our teaching goals actually are. Frankly, you’re probably already too busy – too many of you are reading this on your phone as you sit on the bus or while you chew your dinner. You don’t need to make things harder for yourself when new approaches come along that can allow you to do the same, if not better job, with less effort. If we don’t choose to handle scale and balance this with our requirements to provide teaching, then eventually we risk reaching a point where we won’t be able to provide any teaching at all – because our time to do everything will blow out so far that even if we are phoning it in, we just won’t get the marks processed in time, or assignments back.

Despite me talking about quality control and our requirements, protecting ourselves from the expenditure of unnecessary effort is the only sensible way to approach a time-consuming, difficult but very enjoyable job. We want to use our individual effort in a way that maximises our results – this is where measurement, process awareness and honesty comes back in, reinforcing my previous post. This is where being open to change, to assessing what you need, to finding new techniques and from doing it properly comes in. Because we have to.

Because, ultimately, SWEDE – Scale Will Eventually Demolish Everyone.

MIKE: Measurement Is the Key to Everything

One of the problems in convincing other people to try alternative learning and teaching approaches is that, basically, everyone is as busy as you are. While you might not accept that, you might be the busiest person in the Universe, then perhaps you can accept that everyone thinks that they are as busy as you are. In a world where academics struggle to fit in research, administration, teaching, marking, personal development, grant applications – oh, and their real lives – it’s not surprising that a lot of first reactions to ‘have you tried something new’ is ‘do you know how busy I am?’

We have a big advantage in ICT in that most people are very open to the scientific method of measurement, analysis and evaluation (potted version). So why is it that when someone says “Have you tried this” and you ask something in return like “Well, no, but how long will it take and what will be the benefits?” you’ll be lucky to get an answer to the first half of that compound statement, let alone the benefits. “Your students will be happier” is very hard to quantify – but “we reduced our drop-out rate by 30%” is a cold hard fact. (Well, it purports to be. If someone has done their due diligence, it’s a fact.)

There is, of course, a problem. In order to be able to assess the impact of what we’re doing, we have to establish the baseline (how things were before we started), apply our changes, measure the outcomes and then try and determine if what we did had anything to do with the perceived change or whether it was all random noise. This is not helped by the fact that a lot of classes are small, smaller than we need for statistical validity, or that we can’t easily establish cohorts of the right size or consistency. But, being honest, the first problem for many people is that they do not even think of measuring the impact of what they’ve done until after they’ve done it.

So here’s the first of my three slogans.

MIKE: Measurement Is the Key to Everything.

Looking at that model that I keep discussing, I have three separate places to “lose” knowledge in its flow to my students (to reduce the efficacy of flow). The first is in the teaching process itself. If I don’t have the knowledge, I can’t pass it on. If I choose not to share the knowledge, I can’t pass it on. Next, the medium of exchange (that disconnected external transfer from teacher to learner) will make a difference. If I write everything I know in a book and give it to my class, tell them that the final exam is in two months and walk off – I’m in a high-loss environment. So the medium can and does make a difference but it can only facilitate knowledge transfer by minimising the loss or maximising availability of learners to knowledge. It can’t add knowledge. Finally, what the learners themselves do will have a big impact on how the knowledge is processed and assimilated. That’s why, even without curve grading, those Bell curves seem to show up so frequently – in a similar teaching environment, with the same lecturer, individual students still have some variation. We can, of course, vary the peak of the curve but we would expect to see some variation in an otherwise identical environment. A lot of this has to do with the environment that students had before they reached us, which is interesting if only for the fact that this medium of knowledge transfer may now appear to have both memory and temporal aspects – perhaps our dealing with this previous environment, or accepting that such differences exist, in the construction of our transfer medium is as important as the knowledge that we bring to the situation.

Now I can quantify the effort that I put in to my teaching activities, if I’m honest with myself and count time spent actively creating new approaches or materials – and discounting those times I spend in the tea room pontificating about things I never apply. (I don’t think that such sessions have no value, but I hesitate to count them in a genuine measurement of producing new teaching materials unless I am actively mentoring or I run off and do something with that. Even then, I discount the time for each coffee I had. 🙂 ) If I have assessed the student quality or class metric that I want to change, and I have established a baseline on the cohort (somehow), I can come up with an measurement of time spent, or difficulty level to surmount, to implement my new approach and I can then present the effort, and the outcome, along with the environment in order to show other people what I did and how they could do the same thing.

I recently made some changes to a new first year course and I was fortunate in that I achieved a much higher pass rate than usual for the effort that I expended, with excellent process awareness of how to correctly design and finish programming projects on time. Hooray, you might think. Aha – I had only 21 students (it was the first offering and the pipeline was barely filled) and these students had, in the main, correctly self-selected as having programming experience before coming to University. Yes, we had a good result, excellent engagement, and high participation and we achieved it with the standard load model for writing a new course but our environment was not the standard one. Next semester, when I have 130 students from across the range of the intake, I will have an environment where, when I measure how many hours I spent on each activity, I will have much more applicable environment to realistic teaching situations in other Australian Universities.

I’ll be able to assess each student’s early indications of prowess, from their marks in other courses, and compare them to what is achieved in this new course. I can then start to make statements indicating what the benefits of the approach are. But, to do that, I have to think measurement from the moment I start working on the course, keep track of my time, note where I make changes, look for which factors are being affected and, finally, be honest if I can see trends but not significance, an indication of a Bayesian model but not a confirmation. I have to think about quantitative and qualitative assessment mechanisms – I may have to get surveys pre-approved or start designing custom assessment forms. I have to think about how I am going to be able to assess the worth of what I’ve done in the ground-up design of this course weeks before Week 1 – not only for my own benefit, but for communication with others and for possible papers or presentations.

Ultimately, I can give you a warm feeling and tell you that ‘students will love this’ or I can show you the well-written, thoughtful and mature advice on process improvement for timely completion of software projects, well proof-read and easy to read, that I received from the vast majority of the students that I had in my course – after they’d been in the system for less than 12 months. And I could tell you how much effort that took, and the caveats of the environment, and then, with all of those caveats, you might think about how you could do a similar thing in order to achieve a similar result. Or to see if I’m barking mad. That is, after all, what we expect our students to do: assemble evidence, weigh and analyse, complete the evaluation and come to a conclusion. Then act.

Measurement: it really Is the Key to Everything.

Examining my L & T diagram

I was discussing yesterday’s blog post and a couple of questions came up, which prompted me to re-evaluate the simple diagram and look for a cleaner form. Among those questions:

  1. Are learning and teaching such distinctly separate activities? What about what we learn while we’re teaching?
  2. Is it just very good students who rise to the teaching level amongst their peers?

The sketchy model in the previous post is based on the flow of knowledge. (I note that I’ve been relaxed in my use of the terms information and knowledge semi-interchangably. That’s something for another post but, very briefly, I support the data/information/knowledge model where knowledge is the contextualised and useful form of what entered our sphere as raw data.) The notion of the necessity of an external supply of knowledge, produced by teachers and consumed by learners, is obviously generally false, as the formation of complex knowledge occurs somewhere in our species, in reaction to the data we are exposed to, but that is far more suited to a discussion of research. Our research locates, classifies and develops new knowledge into a form where this can then be used, or passed onto learners to provide a basis for their development in a discipline area. So, specifically for learning and teaching purposes, our system is effectively built on the idea that the teachers have identified areas of knowledge that are to be passed on, in some form, and they provide the mechanisms and structures required for learners to gain this knowledge. Some of this knowledge may be in the area of knowledge location and development, our research training is, of course, an area of concern for both learners and teachers.

So, to answer question 1, why have I separated learning and teaching? When thinking about flows, flows start somewhere and finish elsewhere. Hence, any model of knowledge flow has to show it starting from somewhere and going somewhere else. Much like working out in a gym, standing there with static muscles doesn’t do very much – static and stagnant knowledge flows do even less because you’re not even sweating. I have implicitly accepted that there is some sort of knowledge repository, somewhere, that has transferred a quantity of knowledge to the teachers, somehow, and that these teachers will send the knowledge out again into a communication medium that the learners can then draw knowledge from. But what about the things we learn when we are teaching? Where does that fit in this model? Have I chosen a model that presumes too much?

Thinking about it, what is it that we learn while teaching? If it’s that something has changed in the material, where did we find it? If it’s from the literature, or colleagues, or any other external source, then we switched into learning mode outside of teaching. If it was during a class, where we hit upon a student question that changes the way we think about something, I would argue (and hopefully not as an empty argument of pure semantics) that while we are absorbing this, we are really not capable of teaching this new ‘discovery’ until we have finished the learning phase and then can project it back out to our learners. Even so, our own thoughts on the matter (and my earlier digression on research) indicate that there is some sort of internal learning/teaching mode that does not require external knowledge, per se, but is an internal transformation of data in the context of our existing knowledge. The arrows of knowledge that traverse the boundaries of student and teacher do form a proscriptive barrier to the teacher who learns from themselves and, of course, the learner who teaches themself.

Thus, the sketch is incomplete. I still believe that learning and teaching are separate activities for a given body of knowledge in a single individual, much as an internal combustion engine has different activities at different times, but I need to show the possibility of learning and teaching working together inside an individual.

But how do we fix the sketch? Here are some attempts that I came up with.

The first shows learners learning from themselves, and teachers teaching themselves, but the arrows, for clarity, leave the individual and loopback. I’ve also tried to show that the learner and teacher can be the same person by linking together both bubbles with a link. I don’t like this as it makes it look as if you have to stand in a room and yell the knowledge, then listen to it. This led to the second diagram, where the arrows are now inside the bubbles, and learners can teach teachers, and teachers can learn from learners. The third diagram is a similar concept but with the introduction of the ‘disconnecting medium’ that means that all teaching is viewed through a veil, of sorts, no doubt darkly on occasion. What we teach may not be interpreted in the way that we meant it to be.

I thought about this some more and came up with the final diagram, which unifies the two activities, but without the confusion of the arrows. Learning is still mostly an in-flow activity from multiple sources, teaching is still an out-flow activity to multiple recipients, but the intersection reflects the ‘&’ state: this is the point where people can teach themselves, without recourse to any additional knowledge sources. Latent knowledge, experience, raw data, thinking time, all live in the space called ‘&’ and complete the sketch.

I produced two versions of this in a neater form (I generally use OmniGraffle Pro and Adobe Illustrator for my diagrams, on OS X, if you’re curious. These are both Illustrator). I’m unsure which most embodies the idea the best, although I lean towards the horizontal version as it does not provide a visual hint that one is subordinate to the other. Reading left to right, as we do in English, it also implies that learners can become teachers.

I’m also happy because I was able to use the Caslon italic ampersand, which is a fundamentally beautiful character. Apart from the slightly dynamic air to the diagram lent by the use of italics, the italicised L and T are now of the same type family and style as the ampersand. They will almost always be more visually pleasing to most viewers and, for those who know their typefaces, the diagram will look more consistent.

To, finally, address question 2, I realise that I was too vague in meaning in my last post. While I believe that a student has to be a good student to move to the teaching phase, that is a point at which many students may find themselves at a certain time or in a certain area. A student needs to be confident, accurate and capable of communication in order to share their knowledge but, with careful maintenance of the environment, provision of opportunity and encouragement, on their day, any learner can be a teacher. The new diagram reinforces that: add knowledge, add the correct medium, stir, a teacher may emerge.

This new diagram also provides a basis for measurement that can also be handy. MIKE: Measurement Is Key to Everything. But that’s another blog post…

A new year, a new role, a new blog

This year I’m taking on a number of additional duties, on top the usual research, teaching and administration requirements of a tenured academic in the 21st Century. Among them is my role as an inaugural Fellow of the Australian Council of Deans of ICT’s Learning and Teaching Academy. I’ll call it ALTA from now on because it takes a very long time to type. We’re still in the planning stages for exactly how we, as a group of fellows, will bring together the people who are carrying out good learning and teaching in Australia but I thought that I could blog some of my own early thoughts here.

Learning and Teaching Information Flow

So that is a quick diagram I drew up using Adobe Ideas. I love having an electronic sketchpad but the flow of my hand across the relatively cramped screen of an iPad often gives me jittery lines. Enter Ideas, which smooths the lines and makes up for my rubbish neural feedback.

My first question is “What do the arrows mean?” We can see the words “learning” and “teaching” on the screen, but it’s not immediately clear what the arrows signify, nor the relationship between the bubbles themselves.

Normally, I’d draw this diagram and get people to think about the way that information flows when we are conducting one or other of the activities in question. Then, it starts to make sense. The arrows show information flow. Teaching is all about the flow of information out of the person who has it, and learning is all about the flow of information in the person who wants to learn. I like this diagram because it also hints at one of the core issues in both activities – as a teacher, I can push my knowledge out but, once it leaves my boundary, there’s no guarantee that it’s going to be any good. Similarly, the act of learning requires the learner to bring the knowledge into their own sphere and then carry out some work on it. The bubble boundaries signify the locus of control in both activities. I have deliberately not connected the two bubbles together because there is a medium of exchange that the knowledge has to traverse – if I accept that there is no guaranteed connection between learners and teachers, then it’s up to me to think about the way that the largest number of teaching arrows end up in a space where a learner can grab them and start doing something with them. In designing good educational activities, I have to think about the role of the teacher, and the learner, and the vagaries of the mechanism if I want to succeed.

I’ve deliberately avoided words like teacher or student in the diagram because good teachers are also, quite frequently, learners and some very good students are also teachers, of themselves, of their peers and as part of the informative framework that makes teachers better teachers.

The diagram also has one more important function for me as it clearly illustrates that some of my learners are learning things from other people, whether it’s uni work, life or how to juggle relationships, the knowledge that I’m trying to share is only one part of their sphere of influence. I’m competing with other interests and I should always keep that in mind. At the same time, if my students thought about it, they’d understand that I’m teaching more than just them and that could explain why I make some of the decisions that I do.

It’s a simple diagram but it’s effective. Or, at least, it is for me!

Is this diagram clear to you now? It is helpful? Could it be better? What do you think?