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Information Scarcity – Students

January 5, 2017 Leave a comment

Although faculty and the institutions strive to keep the information scarcity model of information alive and kicking for their own benefit, students are just as resistant to change as the other two. This seems paradoxical as students are the primary beneficiary of a move to an information abundance model.

We know that students gain little or no benefit, when it comes to learning, from the way education happens today (lecturing). In a study done in 1980 showed that students at the end of their course scored only 20% higher than students who didn’t take the course. Seven years later that difference had dropped to 10%. Another study showed that the drop in performance in a test taken at the end of a class and a test taken on the same material a week later saw the raw scores drop on average from 42% of the material to just 20% of the material.

And yet, students demand lectures. They believe that a lecture is the proper way to learn in university. Every time I have supported a lecturer in trying something that will actually facilitate learning (and even experienced this myself), the students erupt with fury at the idea that someone is doing something different from a lecture.Thanks to social media, I have read for myself the kinds of things they say. In one case, what my colleague received from the students was “You should lose your job. Your job is to tell us what we need to memorize in order to pass the test and you aren’t doing it“. This comment was followed by almost 200 others echoing the same sentiment (there were 350 students enrolled in the class).

I was teaching at a local college and was hauled onto the carpet three times during one semester and chastened for using methods other than the “read them the powerpoint slides” kind of teaching that is so prevalent today. This dressing down was instigated by a group of students who demanded a more traditional approach. When I suggested that I was doing this so that the students would actually learn, I was told that their learning was not my concern and my primary responsibility was to keep them happy.

I believe that the primary driver for this resistance to change comes from the reasons that students enroll in higher education in the first place. In the 2016  Gallup Purdue Index (GPI) found that 86% of students want a higher education degree so they can get a better job (up from the 73% average for 12000 to 2009). If 83% of the students are there for a paper that says they were there then learning is an obstacle rather than an opportunity.

Lectures (and the wait to regurgitate stuff for an exam) is the traditional way to do it and subscribes to the information scarcity model of learning. Besides, attending lectures and cramming for a test is relatively easy. When all you want is a degree so you can get a better job, why do any more than you have to?

There are very few students in today’s mass education system who are there to learn. As a senior colleague at my former place of work said, “If we don’t ask too much of them, they won’t ask too much of us, and we’ll all be happy.”


How could we take something as natural and wonderful as learning and turn it into education?

Categories: Information abundance

Information Scarcity – Faculty

December 30, 2016 Leave a comment

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

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.

Inertia

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.

Ease

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?

Information Scarcity – Institutions

December 29, 2016 Leave a comment

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.

Research Focus

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.

Teaching Efficiency

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.

Institutional Purpose

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.

Information Scarcity Today

December 29, 2016 3 comments

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.

Why?

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.

Why?

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.

Stay Tuned


How could we take something as natural and wonderful as learning and turn it into education?

Information Scarcity

December 28, 2016 1 comment

The rise of universities in the C11-C12 was in response to the rise of merchants and traders who needed to keep track of their goods and exchanges in an orderly manner. There was also demand from traditional property owners to have access to those who knew the law and could prosecute or defend their interests in the courts.

At the time, the production of written material was simply writing things down. If one of the sons of a wealthy individual was sent off to become a scholar, they went to a university (Bologna, Paris, Oxford and later others) where they learned to read and write, and then would go to a hall with a few of their peers to record the words of an established scholar. The scholar would read, or recite from memory, information that was necessary for the learners to master, and the learners would write down everything that was said. In this way, books, written on vellum and later on paper, were produced. They contained the information that was recorded by students listening to a scholar.

This was, of course, in addition to the books that were reproduced in monasteries by scribes (clerks) who carefully copied, verbatim, works that were already in existence. Occasionally a monk would produce something new and original, but this was rare (Bede, or the authors of the Winchcombe Annals), and most of the effort was reproducing works that already existed for wealthy patrons. This was ubiquitous information scarcity.

Mechanical printing existed but was done by a process called woodcutting. A wooden plate was carved out and mounted on a press that could produce exact copies of a single page. Not really mechanical printing as we know it today. The invention of movable type in 1439 by Gutenberg changed the world of producing or reproducing the written word. This was the first major step away from the world of information scarcity

The introduction of printed books was (surprise, surprise) not universally welcomed. There were nobles who refused to have printed books in their libraries, preferring the more traditional hand written copies as proper books. Much of the Islamic world refused to embrace printed books and the Papal court initially tried to introduce licensing of printing presses (in order to control what was printed) and exercised heavy censorship wherever it could. Many secular governments took up where the Church failed and made registering, licensing, and heavy censorship as a way to control information.

To some extent, this has worked even to the present day where some governments control information with an iron fist.

However, with the introduction of movable type printing, the first barriers to the movement of the world from information scarcity to information abundance was in place. Of course, from that time, the oral transmission if information from scholars to learners (either by reading it for the learners or reciting it from memory), so they could write it all down began to fade from the formal learning environment. This wasn’t an immediate transition, however, and it is still going on today (almost 600 years later) with 90% of formal learning relying on a scholar reading, or reciting from memory, their wisdom with learners writing it all down as fast as they can. A massive innovation that has recently been introduced is the ability to display writing to the students as a scholar reads it to them. We call this a lecture, and it has a long and rich tradition that has to be correct because it is hundreds of years old.

I will explore some of the reasons for this, what research has to tell us about this, and recent philosophies (that are really thousands of years old) that are the foundation of modern education.

Stay tuned!


How could we take something as natural and wonderful as learning and turn it into education?

Scholarship of Learning

The rise of universities in the C11-C12 was in response to the rise of merchants and traders who needed to keep track of their goods and exchanges in an orderly manner. There was also demand from traditional property owners to have access to those who knew the law and could prosecute or defend their interests in the courts.

At the time, the production of written material was simply writing things down. If one of the sons of a wealthy individual was sent off to become a scholar, they went to a university (Bologna, Paris, Oxford and later others) where they learned to read and write, and then would go to a hall with a few of their peers to record the words of an established scholar. The scholar would read, or recite from memory, information that was necessary for the learners to master, and the learners would write down everything…

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Categories: Information abundance

Thought and Power

September 23, 2014 Leave a comment

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.”

Question base

July 14, 2014 2 comments

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.

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