By Ernie Kulhanek
Delaware Technical Community College
Welcome back to our online discussion of Teaching Naked, by Dr. José Bowen. Previously, we looked at Part I: The Digital Landscape, which comprised the first three chapters. Today, we’ll examine chapters four through six, which make up the first section of Part II: Designing 21st Century Courses.
Chapter 4: Designing College More Like a Video Game
Bowen begins this section by saying that although Part II deals mainly with how to incorporate technology into course design, the first chapter of the section does not discuss technology at all. Instead, Bowen looks at research findings discussing brain development and learning. He states, “Recent studies of the brain have come to important conclusions that inform design of learning experiences” (p.76). Bowen argues that once we understand how the brain works, we can design and develop courses that successfully motivate and enable learning. It is at that point when we can begin to examine how technology can best be applied to our approach.
Bowen begins by discussing Deanna Kuhn’s 1999 article “A Developmental Model of Critical Thinking”. Originally published in Educational Researcher, the article lays out the three stages of development in an adolescent’s relationship to knowledge. These three stages are:
- Absolutist (completely objective; assertions are facts)
- Multiplist (completely subjective; assertions are opinions)
- Evaluativist (an integrated approach where any assertion is a judgment and the “right” answer is the best supported one.)
Bowen states “Kuhn applied her analysis to the teaching of critical thinking and noted that development of more sophisticated positions lasts well into adulthood” (p. 79). In other words, acquiring the ability to think critically is a long, slow process. Each stage must be worked through sequentially, which requires time. In addition, students’ brains are still developing the capacity to apply their new found knowledge.
This suggests that critical thinking cannot be taught in a single course at the beginning of a student’s college career. Critical thinking must be emphasized throughout one’s college career—in every class—in order to be realized because of the time it takes for this three stage process to play out. Or, as Bowen puts it, “college, therefore, is largely about trying to change a growing brain while it still has a lot of growing to do” (p. 80).
The next section deals with different models used to design educational experiences. Of course, most conversations on this topic begin with Bloom’s taxonomy, and Bowen’s does as well; however, his discussion does not end there. Bowen asks the reader to consider Dee Fink’s taxonomy of significant learning, which places the emphasis on the context of the learning environment.
Bowen argues that unlike Bloom’s “linear hierarchy of increasingly more complex sorts of thinking, Fink’s taxonomy is circular to show how each type of learning enhances all the others” (p.84). The more a course can incorporate the six conditions Fink proposes, the more likely a student is to be successful. Bowen finds this model to be exceedingly practical, and allows that, while foundational knowledge remains important, what instructors most need to pay attention to is the frame in which the students’ learning occurs.
Next, Bowen discusses the importance of context for learning. A big problem with learning is that we expect things we learn to support the pre-conceived notions and beliefs we hold. This context is what we are trying to augment with new information. (Context refers to anything the student brings with them: apathy, personal and religious convictions, educational background, etc.) Learning things that contradict our current understanding of the world is difficult.
In order for us to learn, we need to be supported in multiple ways. This is what Fink’s taxonomy of significant learning seeks to define. In order to ensure learning takes place, teachers need to teach with “a metacognitive approach, which combines factual knowledge with an emphasis on conceptual frameworks, applications, and dispersal to students of control over their learning” (p. 86). In other words, teachers cannot just attempt to transfer facts from their brains to the brains of students without also trying to transfer context.
Bowen argues that students are asked to learn differently in high school than they are in college. The problem then becomes how to motivate students to learn in new ways (while their brain is still developing the ability to do so) while setting and maintaining high standards yet providing them a low stakes environment where failure does not doom them. He points out that no one asks why successful undertakings were successful – we tend to only analyze, and learn from, our failures.
The perfect combination of high expectations and low stakes, combined with incremental increases in difficulty (like in a video game), matter enormously for learning. High standards alone will not help your students succeed. There are many ways to establish “low stakes”, which allow students to fail (and learn from their failures). Treat students with genuine caring. Create a culture where failure really means potential progress. Help your students feel comfortable. Give them more control over their own learning. All of these things help a student become successful by motivating them to do well.
The key to all of this is well designed assessments and high quality feedback. Bowen states,
Assessments that promote learning combine low stakes and high-quality feedback. Both foster change and are highly motivating; it is easier to try something new if the stakes are low and easier to change when you are being encouraged and when you know exactly what change is needed. (p. 95)
Instructors are very busy people, especially when you consider all of the responsibilities they have outside of their own classes. Because there are only so many hours a day, Barbara Walvoord and Virginia Anderson designed an effective feedback system that separates comments from grading. For example, they would argue that when I review rough drafts in my Composition course, I should comment on them, but not assign a grade. When grading their final submissions, I shouldn’t bother commenting on them since the students only care about their grade at that point anyway. Bowen says that this system could help to increase student motivation for each assessment.
Chapter 5: Technology for Information Delivery
Bowen begins the chapter by reviewing his main arguments in the first four chapters and asking a question that will guide the discussion in the middle part of the book. He states that knowledge is abundant on the web (Ch. 1); that students crave constant communication (Ch. 2); that customization and control can improve learning (Ch. 3); and that research suggests learning takes place when courses are designed to integrate content with student contexts (Ch. 4). He then asks the reader
So how can we get students to learn content as a basis for discovery rather than being satisfied with receipt of knowledge? In other words, how can we use precious classroom time for more than first exposure to content? (p. 103)
Bowen allows that faculty often resort to direct delivery of instruction because we have suffered through many failed activities because of unprepared students. (I was just recently talking about this problem with fellow Delaware Tech instructor, Dr. Cory Budischak). However, Bowen cautions against that mentality.This chapter treats technology as nothing more than a content delivery tool, and as much as we as instructors may not like it, I think Bowen is correct when he says that we should view it this way because almost all of our students certainly do. Why should they read their book and come to class and listen to me explain APA formatting to them when they could just watch YouTube videos about it? (Even though, apparently, they haven’t done that either.)
However, technology isn’t just limited to the internet. We can use technology to deliver resources to students in many ways other than just providing web-based information. The first thing we can do to increase class time by using technology effectively is to embrace e-communication. Bowen says “every announcement, clarification, footnote, or reference that can be done electronically frees up class time for interaction and discussion” (p. 105).
This can be accomplished via an email, a Blackboard announcement, a Tweet, a Facebook post, or even a text message. This made me think about how I spend time in class making announcements and previewing upcoming dates to remember. Even if it is just takes 5 minutes per class period, I could have almost an extra week’s worth of class time to discuss something else if I accomplished these tasks electronically.
We could also use e-communication to connect our lessons to current events; we can show our passion by demonstrating that what we teach matters to us outside of that hour and twenty minutes we spend with them twice a week; and we could introduce concepts by forwarding the very videos, pictures, podcasts, and blog links they will search for in an effort to not do their assigned reading. Email should be looked at as another teaching tool, not just another form of communication.
Bowen states that we should use technology to give students first exposure to the concepts we want them to master. He argues that “technology offers a better way to get students started on the path to learning” (p. 112). There are a number of existing online resources that we could use to replace the traditional lecture. Resources like iTunesU, YouTube, Utubersity, Merlot, Khan Academy, as well as general Google searches can help teachers deliver content like never before.If you find that there are not existing resources available, you can make them!
According to Bowen, audio (or video) podcasts are far more superior to lectures because of the mobile flexibility they offer the students; the editing options we are offered as we create them; the fact that we would never “run out of time”; the ability to fast forward and rewind; the option to keep a readily accessible archive; as well as the time freed up in class to actually interact, process, and integrate all of this new found knowledge.
I know that one of the things I really found helpful as an instructional supplement were some pre-recorded videos (created by Stanton’s own Learning Strategies Coordinator, Ish Stabosz) that broke down large concepts (The Summary/Response Paper) into smaller, more manageable chunks (“What makes a good summary?”, “How to write a summary”, “How to respond to a text”, etc.) that students can access and review at any time. A similar video has allowed me to stop showing, for the 1,000th time this semester, how to create an APA formatted title page in Microsoft Word. When I am now asked how to do this, I remind students where they can find the detailed video that will show them exactly how to do what I need them to do.
Bowen ends the chapter with a discussion of learning modules. We already do this by breaking down the course into units, the units into chapters, the chapters into individual concepts and then building our resources by finding videos, pictures, readings, and recordings about each individual concept, for each chapter, for each unit, for the course. We could easily put all of this up online for our students to access at any time. The beauty of this system is that we could even just post parts of the course up at any given time, effectively forcing students to stay on schedule by limiting how far ahead they can work (or how far behind they can stay). By using these strategies to prepare students for class ahead of actual class time, we can be free to use what little class time we have to make sure the students get a chance to practice all of those critical thinking skills they so desperately need.
Chapter 6: Technology for Engagement
Whereas the last chapter discussed how to use technology for information delivery, in chapter 6 Bowen discusses how to use technology to engage students. He says “to improve learning, we must force students into more substantive interaction with material outside of class” (p. 129). I could not agree more. I believe that students will not learn anything if they only think about it in class. We, as instructors, need to find a way to keep our students thinking about what it is they are supposed to be learning at all times. How can we do this? Technology can help us in a number of ways, specifically by enhancing motivation, application and integration, community, and information literacy.
I am unsure if I believe that it is my responsibility to motivate my students to learn. I can certainly try to communicate how important I believe the class to be, or encourage students through my own enthusiasm, but I do not feel that I need to motivate students to value their own education. I recognize that I have generally been intrinsically motivated in the context of academia; I did choose this is a career after all, and it may be unfair to expect this from students who have no interest in this pursuit. I also agree that instructors should be role models for our students, and that more than just good teaching goes into being a good teacher. I think what Bowen is saying is that we should use technology to help us employ strategies that demonstrate why the skills we are teaching our students will be relevant to them once they have graduated. This in turn will motivate them to learn the material because they know it has lasting value.
Application and integration of knowledge must happen in the “real world” while our students are still in our classes. We cannot expect them to wait and see how what we taught them is important to them in their jobs. I tell my students all the time not to be surprised when they see that I exist outside of the classroom. What we talk about in class also exists outside of the classroom. It amazes me that students sometimes fail to make the connection between what we are discussing in class and what they were watching on television the night before.
How can technology help me show them this connection? One way that comes to mind is to require students to use their preferred method of communication to write about and respond to these things. If you are already tweeting questions to them or having them follow a twitter list (see ch. 2), you could have them tweet about an emerging situation that connects with a concept you were discussing in class. For example, if I were discussing a concept in my critical thinking class, say self monitoring or persistence, I could tell my students to explain how a person in the news demonstrated this concept in a tweet containing an explanation, link, and hashtag. This would underscore to them that what they are learning in class has real world, and real time, application.
Creating a mini-community of learners in each class can have tremendous benefits for the members of that community. I haven’t done a study, but I have noticed that classes in which the students talk to each other more—in the classroom and in the cafeteria, hallways, online (obviously), etc.—tend to be better attended and flow a lot more smoothly than classes where the students are still strangers by the end of the semester. (Much to their chagrin, at times, this is not an option for my students).
A virtual community is a great way to keep your students engaged with your class while living their life outside of the walls of the classroom. Start a Facebook group, invite your students, and participate as much or as little as you deem appropriate. If you are uncomfortable integrating your social media identity into your work world (although we are talking about removing the false dichotomy of the real world and school), then you can require students to post on discussion boards via Blackboard.
Beyond the potential that the internet has for creating community, Bowen highlights the importance of teaching students the information literacy necessary for navigating it wisely:
The Web forces users to [gather content and think critically about that content] at once. As the Internet becomes our primary source of content, students need to sort, find, estimate, and discriminate what is the right content at the same time as they remember, comprehend, summarize, apply, and integrate the content. (p. 145)
In other words, all of the information in the world being available to you at any time doesn’t mean anything if you don’t know which information you need and how to apply the information correctly once you have found it. This makes the Internet a perfect training ground for students to navigate.
The Internet may be the greatest resource ever made available to scholars. Of course your students are going to try to use it to complete assignments, study for tests, find shortcuts and answers, etc. Perhaps it is time to require students to use the Internet to accomplish these tasks, and show them how to do it correctly when they inevitably fail at finding and applying the appropriate information. I know that some loathe replacing traditional techniques, and assignments, because “they still work.” Remember Bowen’s foreboding analogy of 1970s Detroit failing to see the value of emerging technology because they had existing, functioning technology all around them?
I sometimes wonder if the next generation of teachers will look back at their predecessors and wonder how we became such a cautionary tale when the answer was right in front of us the whole time. Embracing the change in the way things are accomplished is the first step in demonstrating to our students why a traditional education still matters.
Thanks for joining me for part three of this five part series. I look forward to hearing your comments, questions, reactions, and experiences. Join me again in 2 weeks when we’ll look at the second half of Part II: Designing 21st Century Courses. If you’d like to be reminded of future posts, be sure to subscribe by email, Facebook, or Twitter in the sidebar.