Sunday, October 12, 2014

Online Content Education

As I think about the title of this post, "Online Content Education", I become aware of the apparent contradiction or stress between the words content and education. Transmitting information -bits of facts and data could be considered "Content Education" but is it education in the sense of a formative process? What about the need to think critically, or the ability to communicate complex ideas?
These require added context and have to be developed during the learning process.

Science teaching appears to be one of the topics where content is well defined, and measurable outcomes could be designed for specific subjects. For instance in chemistry  one can teach the periodic table and assess learning outcomes by developing questions that directly reflect if the student understands the periodic table.

It seems like a simple task; understanding the periodic table seems like a topic that can be boxed into a simple set of questions. Questions that would have a 'right' answer, which can be stated within a multiple choice set of questions where all but one are wrong. We can do that today easily within an 'online' format expanding access, allowing students who otherwise wouldn't be able to learn.

On the other hand if content is not the only thing, how will online instruction be detrimental to learning? In today's The Oregonian I read a guest column by Ramin Farahmandpur (Professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy in Portland State University's Graduate School of Education) that clearly articulates how students in online classes lose the opportunity given by classroom discussion and interaction. Prof. Farahmandpur uses the word 'shortchange' to describe the loss of learning opportunities during online instruction and mentions how Western Governors University (A well known online private non-for-profit organization) had in 2012 the lowest graduation rates according to the CBS Money Watch Report. To read more click the following link

Friday, October 10, 2014

Content and Context in Higher Ed

Science is supposed to be about content. Concepts, hypothesis, and theories are used to understand how the world works and to develop technology that is fundamental for the betterment of our society. Many would say that this last is why science is so important, and why we should as a society support its progress. Who could be against the advances of modern medicine, and engineering?
This view of science lead to the assumption that teaching science should be simply the transmission of ideas, the teaching of content. So we can always test that it is happening by a simple question: can the student solve such and such problem? Questions like "what is the temperature if .....?" are the standard questions in any assessment of student knowledge.

In a way this is OK, this will allow the student to be a "problem solver" but, will s/he be a "critical thinker"? I think that this is not enough. If we are not critical thinkers our ability to solve problems will be also impaired.

This week I'm teaching gas behavior in my general chemistry class. The mathematical expression that relates volume, pressure, amount, and temperature is known as the 'ideal gas law" PV = nRT. Working with this formula amounts to simple algebra, should not give much trouble. It looks like there is no context. So why should I talk about Robert Boyle a fellow of the Royal Society who in the XVII century developed what is now known as Boyle's law relating the volume and the pressure of a gas, or Jacques Charles a French aristocrat, member of the Paris Science Academy, who lived through the French Revolution and was probably the first to fly an unmanned balloon full of hydrogen in 1783. Charles Law relates temperature with volume of a gas and even though it was Gay-Lussac who published in 1802, Charles was given credit for his unpublished work.

It seems to me that this honesty in the scientific world has become less of a norm, I'm sad to say.

Then we have Avogadro  (always concerned with the amounts of substances) lived the last part of the XVIII and first half of the XIX centuries. He of course saw the relationship between the amount of gas and the volume. Now we know this relationship as Avogadro's Law.

When in the late 1800's these laws where condensed into one: The Ideal Gas Law PV =nRT
Water vapor engineering was born. And "steam' energy became the driver of the second industrial revolution 1840-1870 by introducing "steam" engines to trains and boats transforming transportation.

Now the question I have is: why should students learn about all the history when learning how to solve problems with PV =nRT? Is the ideal gas law going to change if circumstances change? What can I learn from the fact that many minds where involved in the development of the "law"?

Are the answers to these questions self evident?

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Opening Opportunities - Freedom to Flourish - A Counter System

It is a fact!

More and more students are coming out of high-school ill prepared. In my previous posting here I talked about an article in the Oregonian (10/7/14) where the average low SAT scores of Oregon high school graduates is mentioned. This is -as with any problem- an opportunity. And Warner Pacific College is stepping up to the challenge!

This is what WPC's president Dr. Andrea Cook has to say about it: "At Warner Pacific, we develop significant relationships with our students, and believe it’s an essential means of educating, challenging and serving students who might otherwise not finish their education. The reality is our educational system has been designed for advantaged people. In order to make education more fully accessible, we need to create a “counter system” that grants access to a wider population—that’s what we’re about." (Quote from the 'president's message in WPC website ) 

We are proud of the approach we are taking helping students that come from underserved cultures and backgrounds and helping them succeed and flourish. WPC is opening opportunities by recognizing the need for change in higher education. By embracing these challenges and turning them around making them opportunities.

The world is in dire need of STEM graduates in particular and in need of higher education in general, so this is how we can be part of the solution. Bringing the opportunity to study science to a population that is not normally served to do so is of great importance. It will of course create problems as these students are not well prepared for the rigor of the sciences curricula. But there are many things in favor of the success of these students, one is their eagerness to succeed, their gumption for life, their capacity for adventure, and their freedom to flourish!

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Unprepared Students

The Oregonian today in their front page has and article about Oregon's students not having good SAT scores. Therefor not being ready for college, so what is the meaning of this when they actually go to college? Are colleges prepared for unprepared students?
What are colleges doing to bridge the gap between what is supposed to be the preparation of these students and what in reality is?
It seems that not much, at least not much in respect to structural change. No doubt there have been many isolated actions that are trying to address the issue such as having level 90 classes as pre-requisites for unprepared students. But these isolated and non-structural attempts to help students are not part of the widely recognized view of the need for change.

This is what I have been thinking can be done:

1. Accept that they come to college unprepared. Closing our eyes to the problem is of course not going to help. Blaming teachers for the students' undesired performance will not help the students.

2. Redefine the purpose of the first year. One objective of the redesigning is to group students in a way that they can get the benefits of peer support and tutoring.

3. Train professors teaching the freshman class on technologies and didactics relevant to the needs of these students.

4. Redesign curricula for the college years in a way that some majors may finish in less that the standard four years and some will finish in more than the standard four years.

5. Make college more affordable by redesigning the classroom time relationship to the credit hour that has been in place for decades.

Without a doubt I know there are other things we should do. Even though right now I can't think what these are!

In science we see how developments are happening at a vertiginous speed. Science education can not afford continuing without a change. Even though we have to recognize that many new teaching technologies have been developed around the idea of "active" learning and Process Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning (POGIL) but these have been within the so called 'traditional' curricula, within the traditional 'credit hour' scheme. We have to change that.

OK, we have to change that, but where do we start? How do we start? Who should start?

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Diversity and Leadership in Science

Mariette DiChristina Editor in Chief of Scientific American wrote in the last issue (October, 2014) a very insightful editorial titled 'You're Invited'. In it she exposes the need for collaboration in any successful endeavor and mentioned the changes in communication that she has leaded, including inviting bloggers and participating in international forums like the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. In the same issue another editorial 'Preferential Treatment" the fact that 'good intentions are not enough to end racial and gender bias' exposes the situation within science as is commonly perceived in other fields.

Then in page 42 an article by Katherine W. Phillips (Paul Calello Professor of Leadership and Ethics; and Senior Vice-Dean at Columbia Business School) "How Diversity Works" articulates how "being around people who are different from us makes us more creative, more diligent and hard-working".
The same will apply to learning science.

Learning is an individual task but it is best accomplished in the company of others with which one is interacting intellectually. Challenging questions, and time will allow the ideas to evolve and consolidate. In the interest of creativity and motivation having views from different perspectives and cultures for sure will be nurturing.

The question is then: how can we go beyond good intentions? As Phillips write 'the first thing to acknowledge about diversity is that it can be difficult."

How can having students in a class that have a diverse level of experience in the topic help all to a better understanding?

Monday, August 11, 2014

The Heart of Teaching Science

In the book "The Heart of Higher Education" Palmer and Zajonc with Scribner analyze the need to move to an 'integrative education'. In it they mention research supported by The Carnegie Foundation ( that shows the value of community.

Palmer and Zajonc give a solid philosophical foundation for 'Integrative Education' by looking at the ontology, semantics, pedagogy, and ethics of the teaching-learning process. This book is a must read for those involved in higher education today, as we experience a revolution in the way we conceive the reality of our world.
I am not going to go further talking about the book as a great review can be found here!

One aspect of the changes we face in the way we teach and learn science is connected to the way we interpret reality, the way we see how the world is made. Moving from the "atomistic" world view that supports individuality, to the quantum field theory that supports the idea of a relational reality, a community.

When students learn about concepts, ideas, as isolated bits of information in a linear fashion, students will be able to articulate a worldview that is not changing, chaotic, and in some ways messy. But we know that the world in which we live is changing, chaotic, and messy, so how is the knowledge acquired in this fashion going to help the student go out into the real world and be efficient and able to work in ethical way.

Bringing ethics here seems to be a bit of a stretch but Palmer and Zajonc give excellent examples of why this is. Examples of real life like those in charged of the Enron fiasco were highly educated accountants and economist in the traditional sense, as those in charge of the Holocaust (many with Ph.D.) were educated by higher ed institutions in Germany. A lack of ethical education in these cases is evident.

Hard learned habits are difficult to change, the classical atomistic view of the world has been around for centuries now, and is deep in our consciences; so as we move to a newer quantum-field view of the world we have to be intentional about ways to move forward.

Chemistry is not isolated, as the other sciences are not isolated so how do we teach it in a relational way without losing rigor? Without losing the need to develop skills to solve complex problems?

I know the way is not clear and it appears messy, but do we have a choice?

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Science of Teaching Science

Asking questions is the foundation of knowledge. The difference between relevant knowledge and knowledge that is not transcendental is the deepness of the questions that generated those ideas. Of course now I have to define what do I mean by relevant knowledge and transcendental so I can then say how one is supposed to learn how to develop skills to ask the proper questions. Implicit in the idea of relevant knowledge is the fact that ideas that might be considered knowledge are not based on an objective reality, they are based on what can be labeled as "an ideology" created for the benefit of a particular group in our society.

As a teacher then I have to ask how can we teach others how to ask questions that lead us in the direction of finding relevant knowledge. Historically ideas have develop basically in relationship to our information of the world that surround us, understanding how nature works has driven humanity in the quest to know the laws that govern all phenomena, including human behavior.

So going back to the question: How do we ask questions? We'll have to acknowledge that the question is not simple at all. The complexity comprises relationships, contexts, circumstances, and time. The same issue can be analyzed in different ways according to these aforementioned characteristics.

Then at last one has to be able to evaluate and assess how teaching had and impact on the student's learning.  Using the "Scientific Method" it is possible to predict based on the formulation of hypothesis and the concordance of prediction with the observed effects what we call objective data will define the success of the theory in which these hypothesis are formulated. When there is observable contradiction or lack of connection between the predicted (theoretical) results and the observed one has an non-objectable reason to say that the premises are false and that the theory in question is defective. But how do we do that with teaching? How can we apply the scientific method to teaching?

To answer this question one must have clear objectives that have to be measured. What in pedagogy is called a "learning objective" with specific definitions within the context of the subject matter. Traditionally these objectives have been measured by testing students. Testing students has been a way to evaluate teaching performance. The issue with this approach is that it is not clear what is the question. The simple question: Is the teacher good? Is parallel to: Are the students learning? But is not helping in the discovery of what is objectively effective teaching. There have been many studies and publications about effective teaching and they, for sure, provide insight about points of reference and techniques, philosophies and strategies but do not provide a sense of scientific methodology that one would expect in a scientific publication. As far as I can see they provide valuable information about what has been observed and characterized as teaching excellence but more research is due.