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Enriching Scholarship 2017 keynote May 2, 2017

Posted by aquillam in teaching.
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When watching the keynote address at Enriching Scholarship, there are generally three questions that I ponder: What is this person trying to say; How can I apply what s/he is saying to the astronomy classroom; and is what I’m hearing him/her say the same thing that everyone else is picking up on? So, here is my annual attempt to summarize the important points. If you got something else out of it, please add a comment!
This year’s speaker was Scott Page from UM. He began by telling us that Technology, Diversity, and Complexity were the big ideas he wanted to address. Although he did address them roughly in that order, since I’m doing the book report version, I’m going to address them a little differently.
One of the issues Dr. Page addressed was that our students will leave here and go out to become workers, leaders, citizens, and policy-makers in a highly complex world. Simple solutions and right answers often don’t exist. It takes cross disciplinary work to understand these problems and come up with workable solutions. However our current university model segregates both students and faculty into departments, and focuses value on individual work. This leads redundancy in teaching and a failure to make connections. For example, students learn about collective intelligence in many classes. It may be the way bees communicate in a biology class, the law of supply and demand where market tolerance forces a return to equilibrium, or development of a computer program to evaluate complex data sets by breaking them into smaller data sets and evaluating the different components before merging the results into a singe output. They are all just different versions of the same idea, but students often don’t recognize that fact. We fail to help them make that connection because we ourselves are unaware of what others are doing, or what past experience the students have. It also means that some students get the same material several times, while others may never experience a presentation that is effective for their learning style.
In addition, many of the issues our students will face after graduation are too complex to be understood by any individual. It takes groups to understand the problems and come up with the better solutions. Again our current university model falls short because it values “right” answers and individual work over collaborative work and open ended solutions. There are many examples of estimation problems, which show that although a random individual may be terrible at estimating something, a group is often much better. The example he used was the weight of a steer: most of the people in the class did a terrible job of estimating, but their average was within a pound of the actual weight. Most companies and organizations know this, so they hire people to work in teams, not as individuals. Also, students who learn in teams have the opportunity to develop expertise in one area, while benefiting from the group knowledge in other areas. The more diverse the group is, the better the outcomes tend to be. If you put all your math majors in one group and all the art majors in another, the projects they produce usually aren’t early as good as if you mix the math and art majors up among the groups. It is important to remember that diversity applies to many different aspects, including preparedness, background, and learning styles, not just race, gender, or culture. We need to address the diversity of students in ways that help them become valued contributors, not the ones holding the class back. When building groups, we need to make sure that all group members have shared sense of purpose, fell safe and respected, and believe that their group is an ongoing concern.
Technology should be the thing that makes all of this possible. From creating effective groups, to tailoring education to individual students’ needs, we have the tools to do all that. The key is figuring out which is the right tool. Dr. Page shared a story about a trip he was on where they saw a stampede of bison, and many people were taking pictures. Later they went to Mt. Rushmore, where many people were taking video. Right tools, wrong applications! We need to consider which tools to use, and to reassess whether or not they are still the right tools.
Working backward is a good way to get started on that. Begin by determining what your goals are. follow that by answering what assessments would show you that the goals have been achieved. Then, what will the students need to complete those assessments. Finally, what tools will enable them to complete the work, and what tools do you need to complete the assessment. Is there tech that can provide them options, so those who prefer to read and those who prefer to watch a video can make those choices. Is there a technology that can enable coaching type interactions, so they can iterate their way to a good solution, or try something and fail without failing. Is there a “worst practice” for this technology, and are you avoiding it (for example, the Gettysburg Address as a powerpoint). However, all of this applies primarily to individual classes. For solutions to issues like repetitiveness, interconnectivity, and best resources, we need institutional solutions.
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