Friday, November 2, 2012

A Tale of Two Classes

The University of Texas System recently created an Institute for Transformational Learning and hired a historian from Columbia, Dr. Steven Mintz, as director.  This roughly coincided with the public announcement that UT had joined EdX and would be getting into the business of creating MOOCs and other types of online learning experiences.  But it isn't all about designing online courses here at UT.  There's also a real interest in using the tools and platform of EdX (as well as home grown tools and platforms) to design and teach innovative hybrid courses.  I sat in a meeting today hearing about some of the plans that Dr. Mintz has for the UT System.  It was hard not to get excited about the future and to feel lucky to be an academic at such an interesting and challenging time.  Certainly, when I arrived in Austin a decade ago I never imagined that I'd one day be standing on the frontiers of pedagogy, trying to figure out how best to teach UT students using the tools that are now available to us.

One thing that I keep coming back to during conversations about innovative teaching, though, is the fact that they always focus on the design side, on the instructor.  Little thought is given to the consumer and the behavior of that consumer.  There seems to be a general sense that students will eagerly embrace the opportunity to study in the learning environments we are being encouraged to create.  I do think that will eventually be true.  But I also think it is going to take some serious effort--and the passage of time--to persuade our students that a blended or flipped class is doing a better job of helping them learn.  In part, this is because some of them (perhaps more than some of them) aren't that interested in learning.  They care about grades, and would prefer to get an A with as little effort as possible (especially in a core course that isn't part of their major and isn't in a field in which they plan to take additional courses).  When I was designing my class, I think I had this idealistic sense that they would share my excitement about learning and just be swept away.

For the first 5 weeks of the course, they seemed to be excited and were preparing regularly for class.  Class sessions were vigorous, engaged, and I left feeling energized--something that rarely happens with a large class.  After the first midterm, and after midterm season started, they reverted to form: perhaps 30% were preparing ahead of class and able to really benefit from the class activities.  The rest took three weeks off and then crammed for the exam.  I could watch this happening with something like a sense of helplessness because I was seeing data from them.  In the end, the exam scores ended up right about where I expected: almost identical in terms of average, median, and grade distribution to the previous two, lecture-based versions of the course.  Their learning behaviors mimicked exactly what I imagine were the learning behaviors of the students in my lecture-based courses.  There were the "devoted" students who came to class, did the readings, and studied as they went.  But most came to class infrequently and didn't bother with the reading until the week or so before the exam.  They then spent a week cramming.  It's not a surprise that the outcome was nearly identical.  One of the notable differences, however, is that I had a lot more students with very high grades.  So, in other words, those taking advantage of all the tools of the flipped class are thriving.  In some ways, that makes it worth it.

One concern I have is a much larger number of Ds and Fs than usual.  These are kids who apparently just totally tuned out.  Didn't really do the reading or watch lectures in a way that allowed them to learn the material; tuned out in class because, well, they were unprepared and didn't feel like exerting the mental energy to try to follow the discussion.  I'm not quite sure what to make of this or how to respond.  It may be that most of these are students who figured they would count this exam for their "5% exam" and so didn't really try.  But, even if that is true, it suggests to me that 20% of my students are totally tuned out for one reason or another.  I wonder if at least some of these are the students for whom the discombobulation of the flip is just too much and they respond by doing nothing?  Or they are students who think they are doing the work but don't really understand how to watch a lecture in a way that will allow them to process the contents and don't have me there to discipline them.

Up to this point, I have a tale of two classes: for the first third of the class, the students flipped.  For the second third of the class, the majority tried to behave as if they were in a traditional lecture course even without the in class lecture (this is a behavior that I will pre-empt with a change in the assessment plan for the spring).  I am curious to see what the final third of the course will bring.  I am announcing today that they no longer are required to attend class.  I expect that many of them will consequently treat this like an online class, rarely if ever coming to class.  I am most curious to see how many will access the recordings of class even if they don't come.  But then 175-200 will come on a regular basis.  And those are the A-B students, on the whole.  I am beginning to wonder if this is just the nature of this kind of course: either I "dumb it down" so that everyone gets at least a C; or, if I keep it challenging, I end up teaching basically half of the enrolled students while the other half refuse to engage.  It seems to me that this refusal to engage--something that outsiders might be quick to see as a failure of the instructor but is in fact endemic to our student population at UT--is something that needs to be taken very seriously as we think about transforming courses and making them more active and student-centered.  Not all students want to be at the center of their courses.  Indeed, a good number prefer to remain on the periphery, well out of sight.

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