August 06, 2013

Video feedback to students

Our campus is going to be transitioning to a new Learning Management System (think Blackboard or Moodle) within the next year-ish. I volunteered to be on the LMS Task Force that is part of the process for selecting the new LMS. This summer I sat through four vendor demos showing off the incredible ways that their systems worked and how great they would be for our campus.

The four that we saw all do the same basic things.  There are some faculty on our campus who have specific needs for their courses like grading discussion forums, tying rubrics to certain types of assignments, various uses of calendars and other specific needs. Most of the systems actually seemed (on first glance) to handle most of these needs, although some seemed easier than others to set up and use.

What struck me as something new was that all four of the vendors featured the ability for instructors to provide video feedback to students via the LMS. I mean that it was a prominent part of each of the demos that all of the reps glowed about. I think that all of the video feedback implementations were via screencast, but I think most also weirdly included a recorded webcam session of the instructor talking to the student. I've been assigning students to do screencasts as homework for the past few years now, so I am no stranger to students and instructors communicating via screencast. Depending on the need, I've found it useful to post feedback as a screencast to students, but never my talking head.   

I asked some of the reps if the video feature worked for the students to post to the instructor or rest of the class.  It was clear that some of the LMSs had the ability, but none of them were intending for that use, which I found a bit disappointing.

So why are so many of these companies showcasing this feature? Are faculty using it? Do students like it?  Does it facilitate learning?  I feel that I have a pretty good pulse of the physics teaching community, and I don't see anyone using video communication as faculty-to-single-student transmission only.  Nor do I have a sense that instructors at my school want that either.  But, I could be missing a segment of teachers who find it to be really valuable.  If so, I'd be interested in hearing who is using it.

August 05, 2013

Does Khan Academy listen to content experts?

Christopher Danielson has an Open Letter to Sal Khan which has stirred up some discussion recently.  When I read his piece I was drawn to this part in the middle:
"Mr. Khan, you have a team of teacher advisors. If none of them can identify these gaps for you, you need to ask for help from the larger community (and then to reexamine your hiring practices)."
Out of all the criticisms of the Khan Academy, this is the one that upsets me the most. That KA in general, and Sal Khan personally, cannot find it in themselves to reach out to the education community to improve their offering indicates to me that they must not care about having high quality resources on their site, only that they care about having a high quantity of resources.

Over a year ago, I posted my critique of the stellar parallax videos.  In my critique I pointed out several (at least four) things that I thought were really good about the explanations of parallax.  But, I also pointed out some huge problems with the videos, including the incorrect depiction of the night sky showing East and West directions reversed (starting at about the 8:40 mark in my video). Apparently, Sal Khan does not know which way East and West go. None of the videos on parallax have been changed in the past year.

I realize that I'm just one guy, and maybe KA has no reason to listen to me. (Sal has yet to take me up on my offer to have him talk with us at the Global Physics department or an AAPT conference.) I have taught intro astronomy at least 20 times and we usually spend an hour or two of class time on parallax not including review time or out of class discussions that I have with students.  I have invested at least as much time prepping for teaching these classes, so I have at least 40 hours of experience in teaching this topic alone. I know there are teachers out there with even more experience than that, and I am constantly looking to learn from them. When I learn a better way to teach a topic, I alter my approach. Why isn't the same true for KA? 

I pointed out above that in my critique of the parallax videos I thought there were some pretty good things about them, including at least one part of the explanation that was unique (and accurate) and I hadn't seen anywhere else.  I'm pointing this out again in part because I'm not interested in rehashing any of the tired arguments that supporters of KA bring up over and over again.

Let's talk about how KA can engage with great educators at all levels so that we can all get better at what we are trying to do. Some of the KA staff do engage with others in discussions, but they sometimes miss the point.  In the Hacker News discussion that I linked to above Ben from KA says this:
"It's difficult for us to work through all of the submitted issues because most of them are from students who don't understand the problem or have made a mistake in their work, not real issues with the content. We always keep an eye on the number of issues per exercise, and we're lucky to have volunteers who read through the issues and surface the real issues."
To be fair, Ben is talking about responding to issues related to homework-like problems on KA.  But, his statement reveals the heart of the problem with what KA is trying to do: engaging learners in a meaningful way using algorithmic methods doesn't always (often?) work. I would argue this must be especially true for conceptual learning, which is the root of deep understanding in most topics. 

August 01, 2013

New tag in Evernote: Show-to-students

I have a new tag in Evernote  I called it Show-to-students. I have tagged everything clipped recently from the web that I want my students in the Fall (and semesters after) to read. These are articles, essays and blog posts which highlight ideas I think are important for the learning process. I'm sure I found all of these via my twitter stream, so I want to thank you all for posting them to twitter, whoever you were.

So far, I have five items to share with my classes.

The most recent one that I found is the excellent post on ConvergeDiverge about the teaching philosophy that Maxwell had. I think Heather has a great insight that we as instructors have a struggle with some (or many) of our students between how deeply they want to think about the topics we would like them to think about. As my comment (and Heather's reply) indicate, I think it could be helpful to address this issue at the start of the class as a part of setting the tone and expectations for the class early.

Another article that I'd like to share with my class is the article from Slate on the inability of students to effectively multitask. The article includes this nugget:
During the first meeting of his courses, Rosen makes a practice of calling on a student who is busy with his phone. “I ask him, ‘What was on the slide I just showed to the class?’ The student always pulls a blank,” Rosen reports. “Young people have a wildly inflated idea of how many things they can attend to at once, and this demonstration helps drive the point home: If you’re paying attention to your phone, you’re not paying attention to what’s going on in class.” 
I don't know if I could execute that move in class unless I've told the class to read this article in advance. I'd also consider using Patrick Len's excellent approach to cell phone / social media use in class: poll the class and use the class discussion to set the cell phone / social media policy.  But really, I just want students to be thinking about how much they can actually learn while they are trying to multitask.

When I looked at my tagged articles, there was a surprising pattern I had not expected: three of the five articles were about the role of failure in learning. I must have been channeling a certain skateboarding physicist when I was tagging these articles. "Failures, Mistakes and Other Learning Tools" was a blog post that sat in one of my browser tabs for MONTHS last year. I was really inspired by how this teacher handled his student's confrontation with failure for the first time. The blog post on Scientific American which told the story of Feynman's attitude toward being wrong in science should be mandatory reading for all future scientists. Then there is this incredibly honest piece on Slate by a math teacher on what it was like for him to have been "bad at math" and how that experience ultimately made him a better teacher. I'd like to connect that idea to the growth mindset that Dweck writes about in her book.

I saw a question on Quora that also connected failure with learning.  It was good, but I'm not sure if I'm going to add it to the list. I might just leave my students with Adam Savage's catch phrase: Failure is always an option.