Institutions embrace an information scarcity model because as long as information is scarce, it is worth something. That doesn’t explain why faculty members, who teach, continue to support an information scarcity model. I believe it is because of several factors: the reinforcement system, inertia, ease, and lack of interest.
Reinforcement is a big factor. The university and college system have as their primary focusses things other than learning. In universities, the focus is research. As such, the reinforcement system in place is for research. Few, if any, faculty members receive monetary rewards (raises), real recognition, significant promotions, and peer approval for their prowess in teaching. If a person receives tangible rewards for research related activities (publications, grant capture, PhD students etc., space (labs) and assistants), those are the activities that will receive their time. I have worked in a research intensive institution and know faculty members who teach students a few hours a year so that teaching activities do not interfere with their research.
When there is explicit teaching relief (you get to teach fewer classes) for excellence in research, the institutional and peer expectations direct your activities. Although excellence in teaching is recognized (somewhat), the real driver for promotion is research activities. With promotions come monetary rewards. Although money isn’t a factor for academics (at least that is what they say) I know too many academics (pretty well all) who respond favorably to financial incentives to actually believe them. Money talks in the academy.
Lecturing is what academics do when they are teaching. Everyone knows this and we know that conformity is a basic driving force for behavior. Two-thirds of the people who were shown three lines that had obviously different lengths went along with the rest of the group when asked to identify the longest line when it was blatantly wrong. Academics are people, and if everyone is doing it (especially their peers), and if this is what everyone has always done, there is little impetus to alter long-standing habits. And so we see that lecturing still accounts for over 90% of all teaching events despite “
Academics are not trained to teach, and there are few people who go through the grueling training that it takes to obtain a PhD who want to teach. They are trained as researchers, and that is what they want to do. And so we see that lecturing still accounts for over 90% of all teaching events despite “no alternative has ever been discovered that is less effective (for learning) than lecturing”.
This is one of the main drivers for keeping the information scarcity model of learning in place. Dealing with students takes time. This is especially true when using non-standard teaching methods that actually foster learning. It takes about three years to get a series of lectures to the point where a lecturer is satisfied. The first year is real work. The second year, most of the material is revised to get it better. The third year, some tweaks are made to get it just right and from then on you just deliver the same-old, same-old. When you can do this with hundreds of students at a time and test their understanding (or is it memorization) with a multiple choice test, you can satisfy the teaching requirements of your job in a few hours a week. Why change a method that works for everyone except those who actually want to learn. Administrators are happy, students are happy, and a faculty member can then focus on what is really important.
Lack of Interest
This is the real reason why the information scarcity model reigns supreme. Faculty members are not interested in how students learn. The few who are interested in their students, focus on how they teach. Teaching is the only thing that matters. I have found very few teachers (or other faculty members) who want to know anything at all about how people learn. When I have been approached, as an expert in the field, practitioners don’t want to know anything about how people learn. All they want to know is some teaching tip that will make their students happier. When institutions talk at all about students today, it has nothing to do with learning. The institutional focus on students is called
When institutions talk at all about students today, it has nothing to do with learning. The institutional focus on students is called “the student experience” which can be interpreted as “keep the students happy”. How can anyone be interested in how people learn when they find themselves in complete isolation when they do.
There are thousands of research articles published about how people learn. These articles are published in journals with very narrow mandates on psychology (the study of human behavior). There are very few researchers who examine this literature with a view to applying it to formal learning situations. Education is not interested because their focus is on teaching, not learning.
Is it any wonder there is no interest. What is in it for the instructor who wants to know?
How could we take something as natural and wonderful as learning and turn it into education?
Why would universities work under an information scarcity model of learning and resist moving to an information abundance model of learning?
I believe that there are several reasons such as research focus, efficiency of teaching, teaching rather than learning focus, and real – rather than stated purpose.
The definition of a university is a higher education institution that has research as the primary activity of the institution. Some would argue that the research interests come second to teaching, however, the reality is that research is the only game in town. The status and prestige of the institution is based on research and has nothing to do with teaching. Academic hiring and promotional opportunities pay lip service to teaching but are focussed on research activities with the few teaching only posts seen (and treated as) second class academics.
The very idea that teaching release is given for excellence in research clearly states where an institutions values lie. There are even teaching only colleges that will give teaching release for what can only be called a mimic of real research. Clearly, research activities are what is valued in higher education.
In many institutions, students are actually referred to (in the backrooms and corridors) as cash cows to support the real activities of the institution. Teaching is seen as a necessary chore that is made as efficient as possible, meaning doing it with as small a resource commitment as possible, which brings us to the second reason.
Large lectures with as many students as possible packed into the allocated space is efficient. In one hour, a learning event for 400, 800 or even a thousand(s) students can be checked off an administrators list with the accompanying income.
In a world obsessed with efficiency of delivery and accountability of resources in virtually every aspect of our lives, maximizing efficiency in teaching is seen as a positive aspect of a successful institution. To advertise inefficiency would be seen as negative aspect of the university administration. As a result, in most institutions, minimum class sizes are specified. If fewer than twenty students sign up for a class it is canceled because it is inefficient to run such a small class.
Obsession with efficiency leads to larger and larger lecture theaters, in spite of the fact that “no alternative has ever been discovered that is less effective (for learning) than lecturing”.
Teaching rather than Learning Focus
If you closely examine teaching activities in education from the earliest start through to higher education, education is focussed on teaching. In the training of a teacher, the time spent learning how people learn is almost non-existent. I was talking to a recent education graduate and he told me that he could remember the class he took that talked about how people learn, and I was very excited. I asked him what the resources that were used to teach this, and he said “I think you misunderstand me. I mean that I took a class, a one hour class about how people learn. Not a semester long class.” Needless to say, I was astounded. I knew that the emphasis on learning is minimal, but that minimal.
It doesn’t change as students get older. I have studied how people learn and how that can be applied to formal learning situations for decades now, and am considered a curiosity – not to be taken seriously. You would think that a higher education institution would want to have a learning expert somewhere in the institution. Instead, they bring in teaching experts. There is not even lip service paid to learning. It is all about teaching.
Many institutions have, as a part of their mission statements (or whatever they call them) words like leadership, excellence, reaching potential, innovation, and on and on. Although these buzzwords are officially a part of the heart of the institution, actions speak louder than words. Larger lecture theatres, relegating teaching to a second class activity without even a mention of learning, rewarding and focussing almost exclusively on research – this is why institutions work under an information scarcity model.
Institutional Information Scarcity
Information scarcity means that information is hard to find and is housed in information repositories (universities). Learners must go to a place of learning in order to access information. Learners must gather together by the hundreds and thousands to hear the words of a scholar and engage in real learning events (lectures). Access to significant information (journals, books etc.) must be carefully controlled, and this access is sold to learners. Institutionally, an information abundant model would threaten their very existence as the guardian of information. Scarcity adds value. Without institutional control, there would be no scarcity and the cash cow (undergraduate) would disappear and the real activities of a university would cease because of the lack of funding just as newspapers and investigative journalism disappeared with the classified ads and the associated income stream.
There is no doubt that formal education today is based on an information scarcity model. The methods used are firmly rooted in the past with lectures in higher education still accounting for over 90% of all formal learning events. Referring to an earlier post, I quote:
As Graham Gibbs recently wrote in the Times Higher:
More than 700 studies (referring to Gibbs work) have confirmed that lectures are less effective than a wide range of methods for achieving almost every educational goal you can think of. Even for the straightforward objective of transmitting factual information, they are no better than a host of alternatives, including private reading. Moreover, lectures inspire students less than other methods, and lead to less study afterwards.
For some educational goals, no alternative has ever been discovered that is less effective than lecturing, including, in some cases, no teaching at all. Studies of the quality of student attention, the comprehensiveness of student notes and the level of intellectual engagement during lectures all point to the inescapable conclusion that they are not a rational choice of teaching method in most circumstances.
A review by Hughes and Mighty written in the more recent past (2010) reinforced Bligh’s damning indictment of lecturing as learning events written over 40 years ago. The recent article in The Atlantic by Corrigan looks at the debate about lecturing and says about those defending and supporting lecturing:
In some ways these apologia accentuate the dividing line in the lecturing debate. They praise various aspects of lecturing, while criticizing alternative methods. These rhetorical moves reinforce the idea of a two-sided debate, lecturing vs. not lecturing. Their skirting of the research on the subject puts them on the less convincing side, in my view.
This is appalling – For some educational goals, no alternative has ever been discovered that is less effective than lecturing, including, in some cases, no teaching at all.
And yet, lecturing still accounts for over 90% of all learning events in higher education and I can only speculate about primary or secondary education, but would be surprised if it was much less.
That we live in an age of unprecedented and ubiquitous information abundance (at least in the developed world) is beyond argument. Since this is the case, why do we cling to learning models that were developed a thousand years ago?
MOOCs – the next big thing from about 2001 to 2013 – have been offered, and taken up, by hundreds of thousands of students as an alternative to formal education. Like most (again, over 90%) of the online provision available, educators have taken the worst we have to offer (no alternative has ever been discovered that is less effective than lecturing) and dished it out in larger and larger portions. There have been a few shining examples that have taken advantage of an information abundance model (cMOOCS), but they are few and far between.
There are a number of stakeholders involved, and I will consider each one of them, in turn, over the next few weeks. I may miss some, but the ones I will consider will be: the institutions (and administrators), the teachers, the students, parents, and employers. As a spoiler, I will say right now that the biggest factor is expectation.
How could we take something as natural and wonderful as learning and turn it into education?
In July, I wrote about learning thresholds, and how we could use technology to define and attain learning thresholds. I was reading Diane Halpern’s “Thought and Knowledge” yesterday, and came across a passage that explains my thinking about learning thresholds, memorization, and critical thinking. It reads:
…thought is powerful only when it can utilize a large and accurate base of knowledge (page 5).
The preceding part of that line is also important in the context of learning in today’s world “…knowledge is powerful only when it is applied appropriately”.
Never before has the world had a greater need of people who can use critical thinking skills, and never before have we had a greater paucity of critical thinking skills – when compared to the total number of ‘educated’ individuals.
The large and accurate base of knowledge has taken precedence over everything else. And, as the sheer amount of information continues to increase to amounts truly unimaginable at a human scale, the obsession with the large and accurate knowledge base threatens to overwhelm, us with multitudes of memorizers who have no concept of thinking.
My problem is not with ‘a’ large and accurate knowledge base, but with ‘the’ large and accurate knowledge base. Those charged with the preparation of the next generation of thinkers have often spent years, if not decades, accumulating and conceptualizing their sliver of the world, and are rightly called experts in their fields. However, that expertise, in no way, prepares them to teach novices how to think. And the current state of affairs in higher education doesn’t allow for subject experts to become learning experts. These experts who focus on more and more information,with more and more classes, programmes, degree schemes, areas of study focus so intently on their field of study (as they are rewarded to do) that they have no conception of what the problem is. Except that they know that their students are not becoming the experts they think they are training them to be.
Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the recent findings that over 95% of university leaders thought their graduates were well prepared for the world of work, while about than 10% of business leaders agreed (see below). We are so out of touch with reality, we are rapidly losing the credibility that we are banking on to carry us through the disruptive innovation digitization has landed us in.
We can, and need to do better.
I found the evidence – and here it is:
“…(in) Inside Higher Ed‘s 2014 survey of chief academic officers, ninety-six percent said they were doing a good job – but… in a new survey by Gallup measuring how business leaders and the American public view the state and value of higher education, just 14 percent of Americans – and only 11 percent of business leaders – strongly agreed that graduates have the necessary skills and competencies to succeed in the workplace.”
The first requirement for the system I’ve been putting together as a thought experiment that would accredit memorisation (see my three previous posts for some background) would be an infinite set of well tagged questions.
I think this is the easiest part of the system to put in place. We are all aware of the success of crowdsourcing as a way to provide content (think wikipedia). So why don’t we put together an open source question base?
Since this learning system is simply about fluency of recall, all we need are questions about stuff. And lots of them.
It isn’t simply about the questions. in order to make this a memorisation/learning environment, the questions have to be tagged – well tagged. This is necessary so that users can focus on their own learning desires.
The kind of tagging that would make this system useful has three varieties of tags: content domain, source, and event.
The content domain tags are the most obvious. Libraries have spent centuries (literally) organising knowledge into content domains. There are wonderful hierarchal systems that allow users to find learning resources (books, articles, papers, websites, posts, pictures, videos – and who knows what else) within a specific content domain. We haven’t been all that great at tagging these resources, but there’s no reason we can’t start. Within the new question base, an easy to use content domain tagging system is a must.
The second set of tags ahas to do with sources. Knowledge is found somewhere, and if questions can be tagged with a specific source, that makes them all the more powerful. Specific books, journal articles, or web-articles (think wikipedia) would allow users (both learners and contributors) to specify exactly where the information comes from that needs to be memorised to a fluent level. Teachers (face to face or virtual) could then specify both content domain and source, along with the required level of proficiency, for an event (discussion, seminar series etc.) required for the learner to be able to participate fluently.
Finally, event tags could be included so that learners could prepare themselves for the kind of events specified above. They could even be specified for traditional assessment events (mid-term or final exams).
Properly tagged, an infinite number of questions embedded in a threshold learning system, could provide learners and educators with an invaluable tool for the foundational learning we call memorisation.
In my last post, I wrote about memorisation as a foundational component of learning. What I am going to write about today is a system to more accurately measure memorisation than the one that is currently used.
Currently, a test setter (teacher, institution etc.) determines the content domain that a test is designed to cover, and then writes questions that sample material from the content domain and the determines how much of the content domain has been learned (memorised) by how many of the questions in the sample have been answered correctly. One of the flaws in the system is that, if the test taker misses any of the questions, they are deemed to have missed that part of the content domain the questions were designed to cover. It is an all or nothing proposition that is supposed to accurately reflect the amount of material a person has learned.
An alternative that I would like to propose is based on psychophysical measurement.
Psychophysical measurement is the mapping of physical stimuli (e.g. light) onto a psychological experience (e.g. detecting light). Because biological sensory receptors vary in their sensitivity from minute to minute, a clever way to establish a threshold for detecting the physical stimuli were devised in the late 1800s by a group of very clever scientists. These scientists acknowledged that the strength of a psychological response didn’t directly map on to the actual state of the psychical world. In other words, although no light didn’t elicit a biological response, very weak levels of light didn’t elicit a response either. Increasing the strength of the physical light signal eventually elicits a biological response, however, doing this over and over doesn’t result in the response being elicited at the same level of physical stimulus every time (some variability), and working backward (decreasing the light until it is no longer detected) leads to a different level of sensitivity.
In order to come up with a way to accurately describe what is happening, psychologist’s in the area devised a stepping procedure where the light is increased and decreased in an unpredictable manner, and the value of physical light that the person correctly detects, say 50% of the time, becomes the detection threshold for that person. This doesn’t mean that there is no detection below that level, nor that there is perfect detection above that level, but it is a number used to describe the level at which the person detects light. The same methodology is used for other physical phenomena such as sound, pressure, and heat etc.
Using the same philosophy, we could measure the level at which a person ‘knows’ (has memorised) a body of knowledge. If there were an infinite number of questions, all properly tagged with the level of knowledge (difficulty) required to answer the questions, a smart testing instrument could feed the questions at a person, increasing or decreasing the difficulty level until the person consistently answered, say, 60% of the questions correctly. This difficulty level would then accurately describe the “learning threshold” for that person in that particular content domain, at that particular point in time.
That type of system could measure the ‘learned’ (memorised) material accurately, and would be comparable between teachers and institutions. This type of testing could be a part of everyday education instead of a single point in time examination that returns a static measurement that is often used to define an individual and pigeonhole them.
Just a thought.
Information abundance means that learners have unprecedented access to information.This coupled with what we know about student engagement in academic study means that we might want to rethink the way we approach assessments. I believe that social media (SM) tools provide us with unique opportunities to asses in ways that weren’t even possible a few years ago. Using SM tools can provide opportunities not available using traditional assessment tools.
Regular readers will know that I am a huge fan of blogging as a form of assessment using SM. Some of the advantages (from my perspective) for the use of SM blogging include public exposure, and the ability to comment. Other advantages, that I think are relatively minor (from my perspective as a teacher) but are important to students, are: solid platforms, 24/7 access, universal availability, and simple and quasi-familiar interfaces. I think that the advantages that the students focus on are important to their ability to do the work, however, the advantages I focus on are real advantages for learning.
Although a few students (and a great many teachers) fear public exposure when it comes to assessment, I believe that it is of great benefit in the learning process. One of the hallmarks of authentic assessment is that the assessment is a closer reflection of the type of activity that is expected in real life. Seldom is serious writing done for the purposes of having a single individual read it, and then have it disappear. That is how most traditional writing assessments are done in HE today, with few exceptions. When students work is put up for public display, several things happen, they take more care in their work, they begin to produce work that will impress their peers, friends and family (you wouldn’t believe how many of my students invite their parents to participate in their learning this way), they look at each other’s work as models of good practise (how often does that happen with traditional assessments), they monitor each other’s work for unfair practise (with serious repercussions), and they are available for the wider community to engage with them.
My students tell me that after a few weeks of producing their weekly blog posts, I begin to disappear from their thinking when they are writing. They begin to write for their audience, in which I become a minor player. They write to convince those who will be making comments on their work, not for me, who will be grading the work. They present coherent arguments, backed by evidence and clear thinking, that allow them to get across the points that they want to make.
They also tend to invite others, not involved in the class, to read their work. They will interlink their various SM tools so that when they publish a post, it goes out to their friends and family on Facebook, Google+, and Twitter. When I see them in class and ask about a mother’s (or friends, or cousin’s) comment on their post, they invariably blush and say, “That’s my mother (or cousin or whatever) – I don’t know how she got on there.” Well, I do! The students have invited them in. In many cases, this is just an extension of them bringing the pictures home that they drew in grade 2, and looking for some measure of praise. This is great. Anyone who is going to write something that their mother is going to read is going to make sure she has a reason to say ‘well done!’. Why wouldn’t we, as educators, want to take advantage of this?
They have to read each other’s work in order to write (required) comments every week. As a part of the model I use, I write a short paragraph each week about what I have noticed in their collective writing (keeping them broadly within the parameters I set at the first of the class), and also point out the blogs that particularly impressed me. At the first of the semester, I tell them I will do this, and let them know, through a series of very unsubtle hints, that the posts I mention are the ones that got high marks that week. Over the course of the first three or four weeks, the spread of marks gets narrower and narrower as the students use the posts I mention as templates for their own writing. Our students are bright, and they want to do well. By showing them what I mean by doing well, they begin to seriously imitate the best. When they come and talk to me about how they can improve, I ask them if they have read the posts I have listed. When they tell me yes, I ask them if they notice a difference in what they are producing and what I have pointed out as being good work. They tell me yes, and then ask me what it is about the posts that make them better. I can (quite honestly) say to them that the really good posts make me go WOW!, and that is what they need to do. When they ask how that is done, I reply (again, quite honestly) “I have no idea, it just does”. They agree that it made them go wow as well, and then go away and try to make that happen in their work as well, and it often happens. “We are seeing peer-based learning networks where students are learning as much from each other as they are from their mentors and tutors (John Seely-Brown)”
I have had a single case of plagiarism in the five years I have taught this way. The students identified it (the student was using other students’ work and passing it off as his own), and were incensed that this would happen in their class. A delegation of students actually came to me demanding that the offending student be made to stand in front of the class and publicly apologise for what he had done. I told them not to expect that to happen any time soon. It was near the end of the semester, and the students didn’t even come back to the class again. Although this incident has had a few of my colleagues argue that we should protect students from this type of treatment, I tend to disagree. Although not a fan of Ayn Rand, I have to agree with her when she said “We can ignore reality, but we cannot ignore the consequences of ignoring reality.” I think that, too often, we try to protect our students from reality when that is exactly what they need to experience.
Finally, the public exposure opens them up to the likes of you and I -Professionals in the field who are always looking for good, interesting ideas that are presented in a well thought out format. In the past, my students have received favourable comments from around the world. One of my students received a scholarship to do a Masters degree at a prestigious university based on the blogs she wrote for my class. Someone commented on her work, and asked if she would like to collaborate with their research group, and when she explained that she was an undergraduate who was finishing up her degree that year, they asked if she would consider continuing her studies with them, all expenses paid. Unsolicited and unasked for, but welcome and appreciated. Not something you would get from having written an essay that only a single lecturer ever looks at (unless the work is double marked).
The requirement to comment on each other’s work is the other great learning outcome of using some SM tools for assessments.
I require my students to write five comments a week, bringing in fresh evidence each time to support the arguments they are making. This requires a significant amount of reading and thinking, and this is the one requirement that the students ask me to reduce every year. They are happy to write a blog post weekly, but feel that requiring them to make five comments makes for a heavy workload. I say, that’s what you’re here for.
Writing blog posts each week means that the students study a particular principle to a depth that I can be satisfied with in a senior undergraduate class. Having them comment on five of their peers posts means that they have to move out of their comfort zone, and engage in material that they otherwise wouldn’t. This satisfies me, as their teacher, that they have covered some breadth in the class.
However, I think the most powerful aspect of comments are the discussions and debates they spark. “It is better to debate a question without settling it than to settle a question without debating it (Joseph Joubert)”. I couldn’t agree more to a statement. They write, think and discuss matters in a lively, civil and scholarly manner. Everything I could hope for from my students.
As a learning tool, I have to say that blogging is one of the best. And social media blogging is far more powerful than blogging behind a firewall. In higher education, we deal with adults. We should be providing them with authentic experiences, and treating them like fully responsible adults. Helping them grow and develop in the real world in, for me, one of the most wonderful aspects of the work I do. I wish there were other who shared my excitement.