Tag Archives: Isaac Asimov

Teaching What to Learn and Learning How to Teach

thumbby Hap Aziz

In his article “The Top 5 Faculty Morale Killers” published in The Chronicle of Higher Education online (April 25th, 2016), Rob Jenkins discusses several of the ways in which middle managers at academic institutions might influence faculty members’ experiences, for good or bad. Considering full-time faculty (rather than adjuncts), he discusses topics of micromanagement, trust issues, hogging the spotlight, the blame game, and blatant careerism; and for the most part, I find myself in agreement with his management observations and commentary. However, there is one area on which Jenkins touches that is problematic and often a subject of (sometimes heated) discussion at many of the institutions I’ve encountered over the past couple of decades. Under the heading of “micromanagement,” Jenkins writes,

“If, as an academic middle manager, you wish to destroy morale in your department, you can start by dictating to your faculty members exactly what to teach, how to teach it, which materials to use, and how to evaluate students.”

In this sentence, Jenkins links four related yet separate points, which he earlier categorized as being issues of academic freedom. I don’t believe the blanket application of the concept of academic freedom applies equally to all of these points, specifically as a protection against the potential administrative requirement to meet a certain standard of professional competency regarding learning outcomes. This discussion has only broadened as faculty and students both have become more involved with online and technology-mediated learning models, and some of those online learning concerns and considerations may be instructive in this context. Let’s examine Jenkins’ statement point by point.

  • what to teach

When it comes to making decisions regarding the subject matter being taught, there has been little disagreement with the idea that the full-time faculty member is the ultimate decision-making authority; that is, within generally accepted content parameters established largely through professional consensus, and as agreed upon by academic departments as to what content should be covered within courses. There are some dissenting viewpoints, often related to more politicized or controversial content as highlighted in this Huffington Post article. However, there is not enough cause to argue this point with Jenkins, and I see little downside in letting the subject matter expert (especially in contrast with the opposite approach) determine the subject matter being taught.

  • which materials to use

As with the point of what to teach, the selection of materials may largely be left to the faculty member. Certain decisions regarding text-book adoption, inclusion of supplementary materials, etc. may be subject to moderation by the appropriate academic department, but even so, the departments themselves include the teaching faculty. The remaining two points are where the conversation may be considered contentious.

  • how to teach it

When online courses and programs began to gain traction and popularity as an option for students in the late 1990s and early 2000s,  student outcomes lagged comparatively for the online alternatives. Eventually, it became obvious to institutions that basic faculty teaching and technology skills were not enough to replicate the on-ground classroom experience. In the 2004 study, “Online, On-Ground: What’s the Difference,” Ury and Ury found that “the online  student mean grade (80%) what significantly lower than the mean grade of the students enrolled in traditional sections of the same course (85%).” Drop-out rates continue to be problematic for online programs due to a number of variables, many of which are differentiators between online and on-ground instruction, as observed by Keith Tyler-Smith in his 2006 Journal of Online learning and Teaching article, “Early Attrition among First Time eLearners: A Review of Factors that Contribute to Drop-out, Withdrawal and Non-completion Rates of Adult Learners undertaking eLearning Programmes.”

The preponderance of research has demonstrated that building a successful online course is not simply a matter of selecting the appropriate content (or translating and transferring content from an on-ground format to an online format–whatever that might be). As the pressure for accountability grew (for a number of reasons), the notion also grew that faculty, by virtue of their subject matter expertise were not also necessarily well-qualified to develop effective online courses. Interestingly, this was by no means a new assessment or understanding. The instructional design community has understood this for quite some time, but without the mechanism for providing a comparative illustration–which online courses provided–faculty design of courses and how to teach them–was standard practice.

It does not necessarily follow that having subject matter expertise means that faculty also have teaching methods expertise. This is true for online courses, certainly, but it is also true for on-ground courses. Institutions serious about service to their learning populations must decide how they will equip their faculty for success, whether that is through ongoing professional development, the provision of support resources such as instructional design staff, or any combination of methods. But that will mean some form of “micromanagement” as institutions get a handle on assessing the performance of their academic programs and measuring the success of their students.

I remember reading an interview with Isaac Asimov in which he talked about his writing. In his life, he authored over 500 books along with countless essays, short stories, and articles. He was asked how he did what he did, and what advice he might give to aspiring authors. With perhaps uncharacteristic humility, Asimov admitted that as much as he wrote, he really had no idea how to explain how to do it. Writing was something he did prolifically, yet that did not qualify him to teach writing to others. Not coincidentally, he also expressed that he would make a poor editor, which brings me to the final point.

  • how to evaluate students

In the past decade, institutions have become quite serious about measuring student success, expending significant resources to determine what is affecting student engagement, retention, and persistence. The Spellings report (2006) emphasized accountability as one of the four key areas requiring attention in U. S. higher education. There are now, at many institutions, a variety of data-mining tools that allow academic leadership as well as faculty to assess student performance across a wide range of metrics. While a faculty member may be the best person to determine the quality of a student essay based on an articulated mastery of the content area, there are a host of other reporting metrics that address student performance issues and success that are not directly related to content mastery. Today’s reality is that student evaluation is most effective as a collaborative activity in which faculty play a key but partial role along with others in the institution.

So, yes, Rob Jenkins has identified several potential morale killers that institutional management might inflict upon teaching faculty. But to no small degree, some of what Jenkins identifies as morale killers is what I’d identify as entrenched attitudes that will lead to pain if they are not willingly let go. Of course I’m not saying that all faculty are in this situation, and I’m not even saying that there are no faculty at all that are able to teach well or effectively evaluate student performance. However, these two points are tied to an older way of thinking of the teaching and learning enterprise, in which the faculty member is the sole connection point to the student learning experience. With all the tools and resources available to faculty members in the technology-mediated classroom environment, it’s that older way of thinking that’s the true morale killer.


Filed under accountability, education, education technology, face-to-face instruction, faculty, higher education, instructional design, online education, teaching

Imagining the Future of Education through Science Fiction

by Hap Aziz

Readers of Science Fiction are quite often drawn to the predictive capacity of the genre. From rockets to robots to nanotechnology to cyborg implants to virtual reality… these things and more have been the domain of Science Fiction literature since early in the 20th century, and concepts like these are the foundation of the genre moving forward. It’s not difficult to see the seeds of our current technology in the story lines from past works by authors such as Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and Arthur C. Clarke. But Science Fiction has never been only about the technology. Indeed, Science Fiction has always asked the big “What If?” questions on topics such as social customs and norms, political systems, cultural conflicts, and the concept of identity that transcends gender, race, and even species. Consider novels such as Stranger in a Strange Land and Fahrenheit 451; television programs such as The Twilight Zone and Star Trek; movies such as Blade Runner and Planet of the Apes–Science Fiction has always captured our collective imagination with the Big Idea.

Given the breadth of Big Ideas in the body of Science Fiction literature, it’s rather surprising that the topic of education has not received a more robust treatment, other than mention as supporting plot elements, for the most part. And it the majority of those mentions, the format of education isn’t that much different than the model in place today: the interaction between a student and teacher, often within a cohort of students, usually in a face-to-face technology mediated environment. In episodes of Star Trek, set hundreds of years into the future, there are scenes of young children in what appears to be fairly standard-looking classrooms (with more tech hardware). Consider Yoda teaching the Jedi younglings like an elementary school teacher from the 19th century. Battle School in Orson Scott Card’s novel Ender’s Game is basically a military boarding academy with video games and zero gravity gymnasiums. Even in Flowers for Algernon, a story in which the main character’s IQ is dramatically improved through a surgical procedure performed on his brain, Charlie still learns primarily by reading books. In the majority of these stories, while the human capacity to learn or the actual learning process is enhanced by technology, the act of learning is fundamentally unchanged from the way in which people have learned since the beginning of time.

There are, however, a few notable exceptions. In John Scalzi’s novel Old Man’s War, soldiers’ learning is significantly enhanced through the use of the BrainPal, a neural implant that can download information directly into the human brain at a tremendous rate. Similarly, in the movie The Matrix, people can acquire new skills simply by downloading the appropriate data file. This is also quite like the technology used in Joss Whedon’s television series Dollhouse, in which the brain is literally a blank slate ready for a completely different mind (with it’s own set of memories and skills) to be imprinted. In the episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation titled “The Inner Light,” an entire lifetime of events is loaded into Captain Picard’s brain in 20 minutes–with an artifact of that experience being the ability to play an instrument he never saw before he “lived” his alternate life.

What all those exceptions have in common is that they fundamentally alter the method by which information is loaded into the human brain, and they do so in a digital rather than analog fashion. The result is that the time required to load the desired information is much reduced from the traditional input methods of using our own analog senses to acquire knowledge, then disciplining the mind to retain that knowledge and training the body to function appropriately (memorization and practice). All other methods of instruction, no matter how we reinvent them or try to integrate assistive technology, still encounter the analog gateway (and in some cases, barrier) of our senses. The “data transfer rate” effectively comes down to the learner’s ability to effectively absorb what’s coming through that gateway. I remember when I was in high school and I wanted to record songs from my record albums onto cassette tape so that I could take them with me to play on my Walkman. I had a cassette recording deck connected to my record turntable, but I could only record in real time–I could only record at the actual speed that the records played across that analog gateway.

If I’m imagining the future of education as a storyline in Science Fiction, I see the need for a digital-to-analog converter that serves as a high-speed interface to the brain. That’s what would enable the story examples I cited above, facilitating the speedy transfer of knowledge and possibly eliminating (or minimizing) the need to practice for skills mastery. Right now it takes a lifetime to acquire a lifetime’s worth of knowledge, and even then there is no guarantee that we can successfully access more than a fraction of what we have acquired. Now when I want to digitize my CD collection so I can store it on my portable MP3 player, the ripping process takes a fraction of the time as playing all the songs.

Perhaps I’ve planted the seeds for a Science Fiction story I should write: What would it be like if several lifetimes flashed before our eyes at the moment of death? Somehow we’d have to experience all those lifetimes… and that’s just another way of saying we’d need to figure out how to become life-long learners several times over.


Filed under education, education technology, future technology, Hap Aziz, life-long learning, Science Fiction