Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Difference Between a Reference Point and a Criterion

The Difference Between a Reference Point and a Criterion

Edward Renner

Donald Eastman III, the President of Eckert College, wrote an op-ed piece in the Tampa Bay Times about the limits of online learning: “…what works for most students…is a small classroom…where a respected authority…is a spellbinding revealer of mysteries – not simply because he or she knows things we don’t, but because a gifted teacher reads the audience the way an actor reads the room…”

On July 17, the University of Toronto announced that it had joined Coursera.  In response, Clifford Orwin, a professor of political science at the U of T, wrote in The Globe and Mail that “the classroom experience is at the heart of education…The electricity that crackles through a successful classroom can’t be transmitted electronically.”

Pamela Hieronymi in her essay in the Chronicle declared that the capacities of online technology “should not be confused with the training provided by one mind interacting with another.”

In short, the chorus of critics is that online and virtual is a shoddy imitation of the real thing. Such declarations miss the point. They are assertions that the ideal traditional classroom is the real criterion against which online should be compared, rather than serving as a reference point for comparison with other alternatives.

The issue of whether the new technologies are consistent with a hypothetical ideal appropriate for the specific circumstance of lecturing to a captive audience at a fixed time and place is a meaningless theoretical exercise. The essential exercise is comparing this particular circumstance with other circumstances using an objective external standard.

The standard at one extreme is a situation in which hardly anyone learns anything. At the other extreme is one in which almost everyone learns everything. These two limiting distributions can be plotted on a graph in which the X-Axis is the proportion of the material learned and Y-Axis is the proportion of the class.

In practice, of course, both limits can only be approached. Every class results in an actual distribution defined by the standard deviation around the average amount learned. The distribution for any class can be plotted on the same graph as the two limiting cases. This simple graphic provides an objective external standard for comparisons between different circumstances and different teaching methods. The only question is, on the average, how close does any particular effort approach a limit, and what is the spread between the students who are most and least successful?

The classic example this kind of research has been carried out over the past several decades on the teaching of large enrollment introductory physics classes. Typically, students in these classes could calculate answers to problems using formulas, but they were unable to apply the concepts to answer simple basic questions.

Harvard Professor Eric Mazur found that after a semester of lecturing, on the average, students understood at best about 30% of the material. However, 60% understood the material when it was presented online, and the classroom was “flipped” to practice applying the concepts in small discussion groups.

Professor Carl Wieman of the Science Education Initiative at the University of British Columbia has carried out controlled experimental studies on this method. In a recent study published in Science he found that the online presentation of the material followed by peer group discussions in the classroom more than doubles the average amount of material mastered. In addition, 90% of the students reported enjoying the interactive teaching techniques more than traditional lectures; while only 1% disagreed (8% were indifferent). In addition, levels of student engagement and attendance were significantly higher with the flipped classroom.

This is the type of information that needs to be informing policy discussions over the relative effectiveness of different circumstances and methods of teaching, not declarative statements comparing the new digital communication techniques with a theoretical classroom.

What is of theoretical importance is identifying the variety of dimension that account for the means and standard deviations of the distributions of actual students, under different specific circumstances. Like all such comparisons, there are large individual differences. The result for different groups provides comparative empirical reference points; none of which are an ultimate criterion.

We might suspect, much like a flipped classroom of today, that back when experienced professors interacted with students personally known to them in small classes, that the average amount learned was relatively larger compared to classes today. Currently, many large lecture classes are often taught by overworked adjunct professors who often do not even have on-campus offices. Given budget constraints that trend is likely to continue.

Also, we might reasonably assume that a technologically challenged professor would do much worse trying to teach on line, than doing so face-to-face, no matter how large the live class. Just as the newly appointed Millennial professor might do much better using the new technologies rather than trying to teach using face-to-face lectures. A class of adult learners may very well respond differently to the two modes of teaching relative to a homogenous age cohort of Millennials.

Such individual differences as these are of great theoretical importance. They can be empirically identified and dealt with strategically by doing the best job possible with the resources we have. These differences will not be addressed, however, by refusing to accept responsibility for change ourselves in light of the many new circumstances and teaching methods now available.

In the fall of 2007, after a 15 years absence from undergraduate teaching, I became an Adjunct Professor in the Honors College. I figuring a small class for me to enchant would enhance my retirement. The course met three times a week and had three required full length textbooks. Now, in 2012, there are no textbooks. The Monday and Friday classes are virtual, there are no (zero) classroom lectures. All substantive material is delivered online. Students write, comment and challenge each other throughout the semester, meeting on Wednesday for a moderated exchange of ideas.

My biggest surprise was how much easier it is now, with 21st Century digital technologies, than it was before to have even higher levels of student engagement with each other, the material and the professor. The technologies are more respectful; they allow students to do their work in the time and space that best fits their life and their circumstances – which for many includes a job. Socially, they are more collaborative and participatory. Technically, they allow efficient access to material that is more comprehensive, engaging and up to date.

Each year as the class became more online with less lecturing, the student evaluations and level of performance went up. The quantitative evaluations are now exclusively positive and “strongly agree” the most frequent response to all items. Having gone from three to one formal class each week has raised the sobering possibility that zero might be even better. I expect for some, perhaps even the majority, that that might be the case.

However, I quite enjoy the weekly meeting, and rather than face that possibility my current scholarly effort is focused on creating a metric for social science and humanities courses that, like the concept test in physics, can be used to measure changes in the level of cognitive complexity and critical thinking that takes place over the term. My subjective evaluation alone is not sufficient.

We need to recognize that the art and science of teaching and learning in the 21st Century is now different. Our challenge is how to systematically go about using the new technologies to enhance teaching and learning without making declarative statements bases on our beliefs, as if they were something more than just that. We have the capacity to reflectively apply the science and critical thinking we teach our students to what we ourselves are actually doing. Our own teaching is the ideal place to demonstrate the power of scientific inquiry and critical thinking that we claim to be our non-replaceable purpose as teachers.

Edward Renner teaches in the Honors College at the University of South Florida

Occupy Learning

Occupying Knowledge and Learning

Edward Renner
The communication technologies of the 21st Century have threatened both the time-honored ways of delivering education and its social and cultural purposes.

The debate over delivery is whether the digital technologies and online applications are actually a means for enlightenment. Many do not embrace the new technology because they believe them to be a “shoddy imitation of the class room experience.” Or, that it is the millennial mind that needs to be fixed, certainly not their teachers.
The debate over purpose is whether online is primarily a financial tool to create new revenue streams by video recording lectures to reach distance and nontraditional students, or an opportunity to systemically restructure the substance and nature of higher education.
The Educational Divide
These internal debates over delivery and purpose have created an educational divide that rests on false either/or distinctions between live classes and online material, rather than the complementary aspects of how to most effectively use the technologies for teaching and learning. These debates go to the core of how, not whether, the roles, functions and responsibilities of higher education have changed as a result of the digital revolution.
The new communication technologies are neither a second-rate educational experience nor a cheaper commodity. To view them as such is to diminish their value. Failure to embrace and use their potential is to cling to the dead idea of a 500 year old concept that lectures and books are still the primary currency for teaching and learning. Both have been replaced by the new communication technologies, binding delivery and purpose together into a new 21st Century entity.
The divide is paralyzing change, while higher education is failing to come to terms with unsustainable increases in tuition and the need for wider and more successful access.
A Void Waiting to Implode
The public debate over financing higher education grows more urgent every day. When the student loan bubble bursts – as it surely will – higher education will be required to reposition itself, if it has not heeded the warning and done so proactively.

On the nontraditional side there is no such confusion. The commercial on-line and for-profits have both a marketing advantage and a clear strategy. Their products are practical, job centered, and non-critical. They are not part of the liberal elite, and their negotiable content better serves the preservation of traditional social values.  Education as a commodity fits the bill of state legislators who are feeling the political heat of rising costs of public education as austerity measures causes state revenue to be replaced by tuition increases.
The competition for educational dollars will only continue to grow in the face of continued financial constraints. This transfer of title to greater standardization, less physical structures and lower cost is well underway.
However, contrary to its manifest appearance, the real story is not about the healthy democratic process of government oversight finding a balance between consumer protection and corporate profits. It is about the role and function of teaching and learning in the 21st Century as the instrument of human progress. This is no small issue. The ownership of both knowledge and learning has replaced economic growth as the gatekeeper of the human condition.

There are only two ways the merger of delivery and purpose can go: Either there will be a further commodification of knowledge with the for-profits competing with public institutions for the educational marketplace, or traditional institutions of higher education will re-invent themselves to actually serve the dual role of centers of public knowledge and to provide massive open online learning opportunities.

Owning Knowledge and Learning

The Occupy movement provides a conceptual context for the unification of delivery and purpose into a new 21st Century entity in which lectures and books are replaced by the power of the new digital communication technologies. Massive open online courses (MOOCs) can be widely inclusive of the general public and still personally responsive and individually evaluative of registered students.
One of the purposes of my MOOC “Forums for a Future” is to expand the physical, social and temporal boundaries of the class to be able to include the parents, extended family and social network of the students so they may share their educational experience with significant people in their personal life. This simply inflates and enriches the reach of the course at little extra cost. In addition, because the course is online and fully public and self-paced, anyone is free to drop-in, or to fully participate. Finally, any existing public interest group – such as church discussion group -- can create their own section by physically meeting together at a set time or in virtual space. If they wish, they can invite university students to drop in, or even to participate with them; this is something students who have completed my course may do for credit as facilitators, or as paid participant observers for evaluation. In every variation, there are interpersonal interactions among self-selective groups who are able to use the opportunity provided by an open door classroom to tailor their participation to suit their own unique needs as learners.
The new technologies have given us the opportunity to restructure both how (the delivery) and what (the purpose) we teach as the counterforce to education becoming simply another commodity. It is time to close the false distinctions of the educational divide and to occupy both knowledge and learning as the new role and function of public higher education in the 21st Century -- as the essential instrument for the enhancement of the human condition.

Good education is both disruptive and essential for democracy. The content and who controls it does matter.


Edward Renner teaches in the Honors College at the University of South Florida

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Teaching and Learning in the 21st Century

I Use to Perform, Now I Compose and Conduct

 At 76 I just published an iBook inviting public participation in a massive open online course (MOOC).

 This was not an endeavor I intended to undertake.

After a 15 years absence, I returned to the undergraduate classroom. I had in mind a book I wanted to write: “Forms for a Future” – the civic discussions we need to have to have a future worthy of living.

 In the fall of 2007 I negotiated an adjunct position in the Honors College, figuring a small class to enchant would focus my attention. The course met three times a week and had three required full length textbooks.

 I was not prepared for what I found. My students were all Millennials. One had an ear bud in his left ear. I asked him what he was hearing in his left ear? “Music.” His is right ear? “The Class.” Why? “I learn better that way.” Would that work for anyone else? “Yes.” Then he turned the table, in a very sincere tone: Do you find that disrespectful sir? “No, not now; but, I had to ask you.”

Now, in 2012, there are no textbooks. The Monday and Friday classes are virtual, there are no lectures, and all substantive material is delivered online. Students write, comment and challenge each other throughout the semester, meeting on Wednesday for a moderated exchange of ideas.

This transition started me reflecting on my evolution from lectures and printed books to an interactive iBook and a MOOC. It was not as sudden as it may seem. I actually had an experience 25 years ago that should have been a premonition.

At that time my university had three sections of Introductory Psychology of 350 students each. The classes met at 9, 11, and 1. The course was team taught. Each instructor taught their specialty to all three sections, gave a multiple choice machine scored exam, and was gone.

The students did not like the course. Their instructors were highly critical of the attitudes and motivations of the students. The atmosphere was one of competing agendas, not mutual engagement.

For example, positive ID was required to obtain a numbered copy of the examination, which served as an exit ticket when completed. The game was to thwart fraternities and sororities from building extensive files of the examination questions.

A  Sci-Fi story would have predicted the future of learning as evolving into an epic struggle between digital security technologies and mobile communication devices, and computer programs detecting plagiarism. Surely, that could not be the intended purpose of 21st Century teaching technologies.

One year I substituted in the rotation when the regular was on sabbatical. The fall semester was awful; there was so little engagement of any kind.

At first I blamed the students. Then, I entertained the idea that if we were going to herd students into educational feeding lots, it might also be our responsibility to change the way we teach.

The next semester I spent the first class standing in the middle of the peanut gallery second row from the back. I told the story of the 1964 Genovese murder case in New York in which 38 bystanders did nothing. I teased them about being nameless. Their syllabus included material for making a large name tag. For the next five classes I encouraged the students to hang them around their necks. By the sixth class nearly all of the class was wearing name tags; and, they discovered in their textbooks the five principles of social influence I had used on them.

Every class involved experiencing concepts from the textbook. By the end of my section, there were more people in the room than students enrolled in the course. Students were bringing their friends to class.

The experiment caused a bit of excitement. The Chair asked me to give a colloquium on my teaching methods. By the end of the year, however, the consensus was that I had pandered the students, and that this was something only “I” could do. But, by then, the regular was back and everything reverted to normal.

When I finally returned to the classroom in 2007, my first surprise was that listening to my “enchanting” lectures, and reading Jared Diamond’s book on Collapse, was not going to engage young people in serious civic discourse about their future. Once again, I had to entertain the idea that it might be my responsibility to change the way I teach.

In retrospect, I now realized that my colleagues of 25 years ago did not understand that it was not the performance that was responsible for the outcome, it was the composition. I had a new score; one that focused more on the students as learners, not on me as a teacher.

My biggest surprise was how much easier it is with 21st Century digital technologies to have even higher levels of student engagement with each other, the material and the professor. Now, I have choices. Occasionally I perform with enhanced dramatic effect – he speaks. But mostly, I watch the students perform my composition. And, sometimes I conduct by drawing out one of the thoughtful quiet ones we never notice when we are the ones performing. Now, my teaching is much more personal. Best of all, it is simply more fun.

The technologies are more respectful; they allow students to do their work in the time and space that best fits their life and their circumstances – which for many includes a job. Socially, they are more collaborative and participatory. Technically, they allow efficient access to material that is more comprehensive, engaging and up to date.

 My book is now finished, but not in print. It is multi-media and has become Forums for a Future on USF iTunes University. And, it is free, as well as available for credit.

I was very lucky. I almost missed the digital disruptions transforming the art and science of teaching and learning into something far different than what it has been for the past 600 years.

Edward Renner is an Adjunct Professor in the Honor College at the University of South Florida. His iBook may be downloaded for free from the iTunes Bookstore at http://itunes.apple.com/us/book/invitation-to-forums-for-future/id533089665?mt=11. It is also available in a static PDF format through the University of South Florida at: http://tiny.cc/7ij7fw. Anyone may pre-register for the free public course at: http://ureddit.com/class/32219 by creating a user name and password.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Forums for a Future course is now public and free on USF iTunes University

I teach an Honors course at the University of South Florida, entitled Forums for a Future. The course engages students in a series of civic discussion about the economic, social and political issues we must deal with in order to have a future.
The course will become available through USF iTunes University for the Fall Semester 2012. Any one may take the course free. The only difference between the USF for-credit course and the free public version on iTunes is the lack of direct access to the instructor and freedom from the three classes per week time table of a semester schedule. The iTunes version is self-paced.

Anyone taking the course on iTunes will be able to interact with anyone else who is at the same place on the class schedule. In addition, USF students enrolled in the class will have an opportunity to interact with those taking the free public version. Thus, anyone taking the free on-line version can essentially be “in” the University class by starting at the same time and staying on the same semester schedule as the USF students.  

To receive a notification of when the course has been published on USF iTunes University, and instructions for formal participation in the public discussions forums, a person should pre-register for the course at: http://ureddit.com/class/32219.

Although you will not have direct access to me, I will be closely following the course personally. I have provided a blog where you can make suggestions about how I may improve your experience with the class. Since this is first time I have done this, I expect, with your help, we can fix and refine any trouble spots.

I will be looking forward to having you in the class starting in the Fall of 2012.

Ed Renner

Friday, March 16, 2012

Living in the Future Tense

This essay may be freely reprinted and reproduced.

The New American Way of Life:
Living in the Future Tense

Edward Renner 

How should we be thinking about the major issues facing the nation for the 2012 Presidential election?

Global warming is producing profound changes that will have far reaching effects on life on the planet. The world economy is near collapse. Population growth and growing poverty is about to put 100s of millions of the worlds' people into famine. The Middle East is exploding and Western nations are caught up in it. World political and financial systems are failing, including some in the West. The growing differences between the haves and the have-nots are sparking large-scale street protests that are turning into armed conflicts, even in the US. Going over the edge of any one of the brinks will have reverberating effects on world order and personal well-being.

These are neither Democratic nor Republican issues. They are factual descriptions of our current reality, for which we need practical solutions, not ideological philosophies.

For over 5,000 years, roughly 100 adult lifetimes, very little change took place from one generation to the next. Then over the next 500 years, roughly 10 adult lifetimes, the rate of change started to accelerate, and over the last 50 years, roughly one lifetime, the magnitude of change seems infinite – without limits.

In one lifetime, our economic, political and social institutions are faced with new circumstances for which they were neither designed nor intended.

Population is one illustration. When I was born there were 2.2 billion people in the world, today there are 7 billion. This is but one example of an exponential function in which the time required for something to double in size gets progressively shorter. Nearly every aspect of our modern life is described by the graph of exponential change, as examples: 

·         The emission of greenhouse gases.
·         The amount of resources we consume each year, and the amount of waste we create.
·         The proportion of the population no longer engaged in agriculture.
·         The national debit and the deficit financing of our military capacity and interventions.

In the lifetime of one person we have come to the end of business as usual. We can only live exponentially in an infinite world.

In our finite world there are absolute ceilings reflecting the carrying capacity of the planet. We have to bend the exponential growth curves to fit under these ceilings. We have scientific knowledge of what actions are required to do so.

The US could lead a global turn-around by developing sustainability priorities and technologies beginning with energy and ecology. Doing so would change the global marketplace, and would place American ideas and technology in the forefront of innovation and change. Being the first economy of the future, our new technologies could sustain a whole new American Way of Life. 

Globalization has changed everything.

Socially, a new American Way of Life is one in which the government is responsible for the health and economic security of its citizens, not multi-national corporations beyond the reach of national regulation. Politically, international accommodation is essential, not reliance on superior military capacity. Economically, the general welfare is at the expense of profits, not the reverse.

These are structural adjustments, not ideological philosophies. They are the practical implications of two mathematical functions. In plain language, if we are going to have healthier food, we will need to have fewer soldiers and more local organic farmers; it means we cannot fight avoidable wars and still go shopping. 

To not live exponentially is to understand that we cannot have everything we want. Rather, we must start living in a finite world where our behavior is dictated by what we need to have for the remainder of our life, and for the lives of our children.

Unusual times require an unusual intergenerational response.

Of the charted 7,000 years of human progress, two thin 50-year bands of one lifetime on either side of 2012 will be our defining moment. As a democracy, and as the largest economy of world, the people of the USA will get to vote between the two mathematical functions confronting all of humanity. We, more than any other nation, may be the authors of human destiny.

To the extent there is divine purpose to the American Dream, may God Bless America, and the New American Way of Life. However, if it is up to each of us, as some believe, then power to the made-in-America, Occupy Movement.

Either way, in common purpose, it is an exciting time to be alive in the USA.

Professor Renner teaches in the Honors College at the University of South Florida. This essay is based on his podcast series “Forums for a Future” at www.kerenner.com.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Take It To the Limit (One Last Time)

Taking It to the Limit
(One Last Time)
Edward Renner

The current controversy over constructing a pipeline to bring Canadian tar sands oil to Texas for refining is political posturing which confuses the real choices before us and the rationale for them.

President Obama has temporary blocked the construction of the pipeline citing environmental concerns. All the Republican president candidates have pledged to construct the pipe line to provide American jobs.

Both are missing the point.

The story of grounding the Concorde jet in 2003 provides a broader perspective. For over 2,000 years humans could not break the speed barrier of 20 miles per hour for group travel. Then, in 1978, after less than a century of aeronautics, it increased to 1,614 miles per hour. After nearly three decades of service, the Concord was grounded because the cost, noise and infrastructure were socially, politically and economically too expensive to be sustainable. A human “Limit” had been breached. A deliberate choice was made for speeds slower than the sound barrier.

We have other legally imposed limits which we respect as reasonable and appropriate, such as highway speed limits and fenced-in danger areas.

In addition to human limits, there are natural limits as well. Trees require a minimum number of thermal units per year to survive. The number of thermal units decreases at higher levels of elevation and degrees of latitude north or south. Thus, we have a visible tree line near the top of a high mountain and at extreme latitudes.

The most important natural limit facing humanity today is the amount of CO2 (greenhouse gases) in the atmosphere. For over 2000 years before industrialization the number of units remained constant. Since then, CO2 emissions have shot upward similar to the speed of group travel.

Greenhouse gases trap heat in the Earth's atmosphere producing global warming, which – like the tree line -- alters whether people, as well as trees, may continue to live. If we cross this natural limit, much of what is now prosperous land will be either barren or underwater.

The social and political response to limits is to regulate our behavior. 

At the United Nations Summit on global warming the nations of the world agreed that the emission of greenhouse gases must be reduced to a level where global warming does not exceed 2°C. Since the start of the industrial era we have increased global temperature by 1°C. We are half way to the limit. To stay under this natural limit we must not release any more than 565 additional gigatons of carbon between now and 2050. That number is our carbon budget, similar to a personal financial budget for living within our income.

In the first decade of the 21st century we emitted 321 gigatons of carbon. If we continue at that rate for 18 years we will cross a tipping point. Exceeding the 565 gigaton limit will set in motion over the next several decades an irreversible increase in global warming toward 2°C. Irreversible because once greenhouse gases are emitted, they dissipate very slowly.  

The urgency of a reduced carbon diet can be illustrated by comparing the rate of increase in the World’s population with the speed of travel. Crossing the red line – the limit of 2°C -- will reduce the capacity of the planet to support its population of 7 billion people to a smaller, sustainable limit. Within our lifetime a large percentage of the population will either die as a direct consequence of climate change or from fighting over insufficient supplies of food and water.

As the end point, CO2 emissions will be dramatically reduced. Over several centuries the concentration of CO2 will decline, nature will reach a new balance, and the survivors may begin again the grand experiment on applying the power of intelligent life for the preservation of the human condition.

The currently known carbon reserves -- such as the Canadian tar sands oil -- are five times larger than our carbon budget for the next 40 years. We do not need to discover new carbon reserves, do deep water drilling, mine “cleaner” coal or build the pipeline.

The missing point is: Most of the coal and oil that we already know about has to stay in the ground for us to live within our carbon budget.

The pipeline jobs are the equivalent of building a casket for yourself, your family and your neighbors to use within our lifetime. We will all benefit from investing all of our venture capital in alternative energy sources, providing even more viable new jobs for living Americans, and for their children.

Professor Renner teaches in the Honors College at the University of South Florida. He blogs at: http://forumsforafuture.blogspot.com/