Monthly Archives: January 2011

Learning in the first two years of college

A few days ago, USA Today posted an article documenting that little to no learning seems to occur in the first two years of college.  According to the survey done as part of Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, about 51% of a 7-day week is spent socializing while 7% is spent studying.  Stunned by this news, I felt compelled to explore the various possible explanations, such No Child Left Behind as detriment and over-socializing, by discussing the paper with them.  The responses varied from

“yeah, a lot of the stuff I’m learning in my classes is just a repeat of high school”

or

“some people just don’t really seem to want to learn in my classes”

or

“yes, socializing is huge part of dorm life”

To provide a fuller picture on my institution and my small, 30-student sample, I’ve learned that the school tends to have a 30% attrition rate for students within the first year.  Most students do not live in the dorms, but live in off campus apartments or with family.  These students are currently in their 2nd quarter of their freshman year, so I don’t have a full two-year perspective on the learning.  Furthermore, these students this semester are much more organized and have follow through to complete my assignments in comparison to last semester where I was lucky to get 50% to participate in discussion boards.  Several questions about the other academic backgrounds of these students remain a mystery, but the overwhelming “well, yeah, of course I don’t feel like I’m learning anything” from the class as a whole was shocking.

From the instructor’s point of view, I understand how this non-learning can occur.  As a lecturer, I’m given pretty open reign on how I run this course.  Having taught versions of the course at least 5 other times, I have an idea of what works and what doesn’t.  Students lament about the amount of work I expect them to complete for the 1 or 2 unit course.  Based on campus standards, my 1 unit course should equate to 56 hours of studying, lecture, assignments, etc.  For an 8-week course (I’m a condensed version), that means there is about 7 hours of work per week.  On average they have to watch various videos (45 min. max), read a “chapter” (max. 1 hour), complete a 10 question, multiple choice quiz about the chapter (1 hr max), a discussion board question (30 mins.) and a weekly assignment that involves students to apply their reading and video info to their research either in the stacks, the databases, or the web (max. 2 hours).  In total, that adds up to about 5 hours and 15 minutes a week on average.  For the first two weeks, angry, snippy students bemoan this course’s existence but almost always end the course talking about how much they LEARNED.  I’ve tried conducting the course without the chapters readings, the quizzes, and the weekly assignments and those that already knew the information or could think critically did great while the large majority floundered.  From various higher-ups, I get pressured to keep my enrollment stats high and to reduce the grading workload, but how else can they learn in a hybrid class unless I provide feedback?  How else do students learn about info literacy unless they apply it, refine it, and get guidance on it?  Most likely, the low workload in other courses work against me in terms of workload expectations.  However, those are presumably the courses in which students aren’t learning.  Even some of my fellow course instructors have mixed feelings about how I conduct the course.  Sometimes, they really like my assignment ideas, such as when I have students learn about copyright through traditional definitions but also through analyzing news articles about real-life plagiarism and intellectual property infringement.  My students even reacted, at least a bit, when I showed them the YouTube mashup of Jay-Z and The Beatles.

Other assignments, such as practicing citations, get eyerolls for being so archaic and unapplicable to real life.  But, for all those academic papers they have to write in the next 3.6 years, won’t they need to know that?  Shouldn’t we help them learn to do that if they don’t already?  What about the more abstract reality that citations are just a way to track info, similar to tagging or filing?  We can’t assume anything with these guys because even though they grow up with MySpace and Facebook, it doesn’t mean they can articulate why a website is a trust-worthy website for academic research or even for recommendations on treating a personal illness. Google is often times still a magic eightball that just shakes out an answer.

Returning to the “no learning” issue, I think there are a variety of culprits out there and the “phone it in” by automating or minimizing grading or pairing down the class to meet what our students want to do is part of the backslide.  The No Child Left Behind policies are also horrible, as the grading systems at some institutions here in California refuse to fail kids or reward kids for cheating off other students because “at least they put in effort.”  Beyond the college classroom, what type of message do we send to kids if we just lower the bar of expectation?  Do you think Google will take that into consideration when hiring a candidate?  Not likely and nor would any other job consider that a factor either.

I know I work A LOT when it comes to class season, perhaps more than I should, but I know that my students learn.  Share any thoughts you have about this situation or other interesting methods you’ve developed to defy the odds and have your students learn, too.

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Google Apps: A Word to IT Designers

With a new year comes a new quarter (and soon a new semester).  After one quarter under my belt, I decide to use the built-in features of the Google Apps hosted by the university.  However, after two weeks of non-stop problems, I have had to migrate back to my own, personal Google account due to some seriously flawed application issues, either due to Google but more likely my school’s internal policy Google App access.

While many people have their own gmail address of sorts, universities, businesses, and city governments are looking more and more towards the flexible, easy to deploy Google Apps suite of email, website development, and collaborative document creation and management.  Its familiarity, its ease all contribute to this advancement.  However, how you choose to deploy these features becomes a whole other issue in the IT-selected app setting.

Issue #1: Google Sites

Teaching a hybrid, ten-week course, I wanted to use Google Sites to create and share a course page containing all of the essential features: syllabus, project instructions, weekly videos, etc.  Last quarter, I didn’t have access to anything until the first day of class so I had to develop the Fall site on my own Google Site.  Based on some complaints regarding access, etc., I thought it would be easier to have a site built under the school’s Google App Sites setting.  Heck, I could even share it with the whole community of the campus!  Well, except for 1 thing.  The students were not setup to access Google Sites; only faculty and staff have that feature activated on Google app setting.  Although I can see the use of Google Sites for committee work and departmental issues, leaving students out of the loop is missing the boat on your largest potential user population, as well as cutting off the technological arms for hybrid teachers like myself.  Perhaps the IT department did not consider this possible application and consider the de-arming “just a flesh wound.”

Issue #2: Google Calendar

As part of my own workflow, I plot out all key due dates, holidays, etc on a new course-only Google Calendar before creating any other assignments so I can have an overview of the course’s timeline.  Well, with a Google Site at a school with Google Apps, I should be able to just embed my calendar and share these same dates with my students in the course page, right?  Wrong.  Unless the students can login as me, they can’t see the calendar and there are no options to make the calendar public.  Ideally, the students ought to be able to see the calendar on the site and even be able to import that calendar to their own personal Google calendar so they can already see the assignment due dates plotted out for them.

Issue #3 Google Docs (particularly Forms)

After grading nearly 150 papers in about 2 weeks last December, I realized something has to change about my teaching workflow.  Most of the questions for these assignments are multiple choice or fill-in the blank, but require downloading, saving to a folder, renaming the file since some students never remember to include their name, converting it to PDF so it can go back to them with comments in an easily accessible file format, grading and commenting on it, resaving, locking the file, and sending back the graded file.  Even writing my methods makes my headspin.  Instead, I wanted to test out Google Forms as a new way to manage short-quiz based assignments; some of the quizzes could even be setup to self-grade!  But, the iron curtain between student and faculty access made the embedded forms not accessible without faculty login.  Even when emailing the forms to the students, they could see the forms, but not email them back without faculty login despite having been asked specifically to complete the form.  And back to the personal account I go….Even with that, I could not transfer ownership of the form from one Gmail account to another so I had to recreate the entire quiz and answer key under the personal account.  If there was a comical, graphical way to depict this, I would so submit these scenarios to FAIL Blog.  Perhaps the Oatmeal can help me out with this….(If you don’t know this site, you really ought to check it out, at least the 10 Things You Need to Stop Misspelling)

Now, presumably, I’m the first to hit these roadblocks so I hope my comments can help prevent co-workers from losing the same time and energy I did and and advise institutions considering these changes to voice your needs early before the banging your head against a wall begins.