Monday, May 11, 2015

Beyond Content: Critical Thinking Online

(Image source:
Probably the biggest misapprehension about online course design and instruction is that the course is an automated version of a pure lecture model of instruction.  This misapprehension includes the wrongheaded reduction of instructors to the role of "content deliverer."  Students are imagined as blank slates whose minds are supposedly filled by all this delivered content.  If this were an accurate model of teaching and learning, in any environment, then it really would be possible to record faculty delivering lectures and put them online.  It really would be possible to reduce the role of the instructor to "course manager/grade accountant."  In this role, the course manager would be responsible for trouble-shooting technology problems, proctoring exams, answering logistical questions that are already answered on the syllabus.  If only it were so easy.

Partly in an effort to discourage anyone from thinking that my Online Rome course could be run without the involvement of at least one content expert at the top, I did not include any lectures in the course.  You will never see me in the role of "content deliver" or "content expert."  We did include some old pre-recorded lectures that covered the basics, mostly because we had them and I was curious to see how much students used them when they were unnecessary.  Those lectures will not be used in the version of the course that is run for UT Austin students, in part to avoid the false assumption on all sides that students will pass by watching those lectures.

Rather, the design of the course emphasized active, constructivist learning.  Students learn by answering questions that highlight essential bits of ancient Roman history.  We ask them to think about things deeply and critically.  Oftentimes there isn't one "correct" answer--and that's the point.  We talk a lot about the limits of evidence.  We make it clear that this is a class that goes well beyond memorizing a bunch of random information and regurgitating that on graded assignments.  If that's all the class were, it really should be taught by a robot.  As Mike Caulfield puts it, we are not in the content business; we are in the business of building communities of learners.

In designing the class, we did as much as we could to focus on the development and exercise of critical thinking skills--in the modules, in essays at the end of modules, and on graded activities.  In the first live version of the course, we tried to use short answer questions inside of modules to accomplish these outcomes, but without much success.  A big part of the problem: Canvas isn't really designed to give students feedback on short answer questions inside of modules; and it required that graders have a substantial knowledge of ancient Roman history to give useful and on point feedback.  It also required that students review the feedback and take it in.

In the Spring 2015 version, we retained the short answer questions but emphasized the self-regulating aspect of learning with them.  We provided extensive but general feedback in the comments but relied on students to answer the questions (or not).  We also reviewed the contents of some of the short answer questions later in the module, through an automatically graded question.  The instructor feedback was shifted to the essays.  This produced much better results, both because the students took the essay more seriously and very often produced thoughtful responses; and, because of how we distributed the work, the grading for the instructor was 50 500 word essays/week--a small enough amount that he could give extended and engaged feedback to students.  The students, in turn, were more likely to look at the feedback for a single assignment that felt weighty to them.  The depth of student engagement on the "big issues" has been very impressive.

There is nothing about the online meeting that makes it easier or more difficult to teach and practice critical thinking skills.  It's entirely about devising and incentivizing the right learning activities for the environment.  It also requires that one view the instructor not as a content provider or manger of logistics, but as a teacher.  At every step, critical thinking requires reflection from the student and, at key points, feedback from the teacher.  It is crucial that the teacher has the knowledge to provide that feedback that then pushes the student to think more deeply and critically.

To give just one example of a Q&A from the class discussion board:

A student asks the following question while working through a module: "A question says that this was necessary to confer the powers required to rule as emperor. However, the recording states that this was a self defeating proposal as it conferred power beyond the legal basis law. Given that Vespasian was already emperor, and thus laid claim to supreme power, did this truly do anything beyond codify what he already had? That is to say, was it necessary or just convenient for Vespasian?"

The instructor replies: "Good question, and one without a clear answer. On the one hand, as a non-Julio-Claudian, and a usurper of the throne, Vespasian required the lex to give his position legal standing. On the other, this seems to obscure a reality that had stood behind Vespasian's rise and, indeed, Augustus': the power of the emperor was not based on law, but his irrefutable military supremacy.

In other words, what the lex did was standardize the position of the emperor in a way that made it possible for an emperor to hold power without basing his legitimacy on family lineage. What it didn't do was resolve the ambiguity that resided between the "clout" of the emperor and the notional continued constitutional existence of the Republic (which echoes the contrast between auctoritas and imperium that was apparently crucial to Augustus' reign). The degree to which this was understood by contemporary Romans is debatable; for them, it was merely a standard law that made Vespasian's extraordinary reign consistent within existing fabric of Roman society."

The amount of expertise required to engage with this student's interesting and thoughtful question is very high and goes well beyond the "I read the textbook a week before the students did" approach of some out of their depth instructors.  An interesting thing happens when you give smart kids a lot of information and ask them to think about it: they do.  And sometimes they have questions that don't have an easy, Google-able answer.  Sometimes, to answer their question, you have to have a deep knowledge of late Roman republican history; Roman law; Augustan auctoritas vs imperium, and how that evolved under the Judio-Claudians; and the intersection of law and martial power from Sulla onwards.  This is very specialized learning, the sort of learning one acquires only by writing a dissertation/conducting research in the field or, possibly, after decades of teaching the course.

Learning does not happen by magic.  It doesn't happen just by attending lecture nor does it happen just by opening up and even working through an online module. While many--most of all ed tech VCs--would love to be able to automate professors, the harsh reality is that we can't be automated.  Parts of what we do can be automated, certainly; but WE can't be automated.  We can be replaced by other content experts (who will have different sets of strengths and weaknesses), but we can't be replaced by robots or by a Physics BA who is looking to earn some extra money on the side.

If one thinks of an online instructor as nothing more than a grader and student wrangler, quite a lot of potential learning seeps away as students realize that nobody has the expertise to engage with them.  It's interesting to me that we all recognize them when it comes to a physical classroom; yet want to believe that, somehow, when it comes to online learning, the course itself can magically provide all these ingredients--especially timely and engaged feedback--that are essential for developing critical thinking skills in the vast majority of our undergraduate students.  Technology is not magic.  Learning online is difficult and requires the same interaction with content experts that classroom learning requires.

No comments:

Post a Comment