Sneak Peek at a New Program on Teaching Excellence

Last week I spent two full days in sessions of the University Teaching Project in preparation for a new partnership at William and Mary focused on using the best combination of traditional and emerging technologies available to broaden and deepen the conversation about excellent teaching. IT’s academic information services staff will be working closely with the Roy Charles Center–the nerve center for WM’s interdisciplinary programs, competitive scholarships, University Teaching Project and the Sharpe Community service program. As a result, the Charles Center is the home of some of the most interesting programs focused on expanding the range of teaching and learning at the College, and dozens of faculty members are working on projects to make learning even more interactive, integrative and imaginative.

We’ve worked closely with the folks at the Charles Center on a number of initiatives, including one focused on understanding the process of undergraduate research, and we’ve laid the groundwork even more expansive projects in the future. The grand plan for the next two years calls for our group to focus the time and resources that we’d been investing in the former Technology Integration Program on expanding the reach of the University Teaching Project. Our efforts in creating TIP had some very real successes, but we never achieved the kind of seamless integration that we had hoped for.

In practical terms, we’re going to help develop a fully interactive web site that fosters communications and consolidates resources about teaching in a common location. We know that teaching is highly valued at WM, but a visitor from Mars would have to look pretty hard for evidence of our commitment. Efforts at teaching improvement have generally been highly personal and private–shared only with a few close colleagues and department members. Our goal is to keep the support for grassroots efforts at teaching improvement, closely tied to the individual classroom, while publicizing some of successes so that others can build on them. In the early stages of the project, we’ll focus on listening, gathering information and trying to understand what the teaching community of practice is really like.

We’re optimistic about the potential value of this partnership because of the strong alignment between our way of working in the academic computing group and that of Joel Schwartz, Dean of Interdisciplinary Studies:

I am a catalyst,” he said. “What a good teacher does is kind of catalyze thinking and productivity in students. Teaching is not something in which you have a student sit at your feet while you dispense wisdom down to them and they soak it into their heads. You try to help them become original, creative people.” (link)


University Teaching Project

Finding a Philosophical Base for Educational Technology

Parallel Universes | Learning In a Flat World

I’ve been trying to find a way to sort out some of my impressions and thoughts about the University of Mary Washington Faculty Academy. Britt Watwood, an online learning specialist at VCU, may have provided the opening in this post where he compares his experiences at the faculty academy to the those at a VCU faculty development program that was being conducted at the same time.

The focus of the VCU Summer Institute was on the philosophical issues that shape decisions about teaching and learning. The Institute description noted:

Furthermore, absent a cogent, unifying teaching and learning philosophy, many courses appear to students as a maze instead of a roadmap—after all, it is called a course.

Developing a coherent, unifying vision and philosophy is central to good practice and requires a level of thought that goes well beyond decisions about whether allow laptops in class or pay attention to the back channel at a conference. Roger Hiemstra, my former professor in the adult education program at Syracuse University defined educational philosophy this way: “Putting the nature of the universe, including meaning, people, and relationships, into an understandable or explainable perspective”. Students in both the masters and doctoral programs developed personal philosophy statements spanning multiple courses as our understanding of our roles as teachers, researchers and citizens deepened and grew. Roger’s own personal statement of philosophy, personal code of ethics, and statement of professional commitment served as models for my work. Few of us spend much time each day contemplating the fundamental questions that shape philosophical inquiry.

  • What do you believe is the purpose of higher education?
  • What do you believe about the nature of the learner?
  • What do you believe about the nature of teaching?
  • What does it mean to “know” something?
  • What is the right relationship between “content” and “process”?

The end of the academic year provides an excellent time to revisit these broad questions. Venues such as faculty faculty academies, summer institutes, and conferences provide the opportunity for conversations with others in our communities. As Britt points out, getting colleagues to question and adjust their paradigms is difficult and engaging in that kind of deep reflection requires testing our ideas and beliefs in the presence of others who may hold deeply different ideas.

In preparing for my presentation at the Faculty Academy, I noticed that it’s been a long time since I updated and articulated my own statement of philosophy, ethical assumptions and personal commitment. Would we be more convincing in our work with our colleagues if we were operating from more thoughtful, comprehensive frameworks ourselves? To what extent do those of us who work in Educational Technology even have any shared values? Maybe this summer would be a good time for those of us in the ed tech “profession” to think about some of these things in the same cogent, unified way we’re asking our faculty colleagues to think about their teaching.

Now I Know: Why Humanists Read Their Papers

Why Humanists Read Their Papers

I’d always wondered about this. Some years ago, I was invited by one of my colleagues to attend an American Studies conference on campus. When I went to his paper session, I was aghast–here was this talented, enthusiastic, master-of-multiple-technologies standing at the lectern, head bowed, reading a paper out loud. What’s more, the program that afternoon was filled with scores of other historians, literary scholars and theorists all doing the same thing.

Cathy Davidson’s contents that the practice isn’t just a bad habit, but rather, is the result of “deep epistemological assumptions about how we know and what is worth knowing.”

First, what the scientific method is to scientists, what such things as standard deviation are to statisticians and quantifying social scientists, rhetoric and logic are to humanists…Every humanist endures years of writing long papers and having them corrected not just for their content but for the micro-logics of each new twist and turn of the argument. Critics who challenge one another often do so based on small differentiations among big ideas. Often, in our field, we seemingly agree with one another on a whole list of major convictions and assumptions–but that doesn’t seem to prevent us from going at one another with both barrels over some logical mis-step.

For the humanist, the argument is the core of the discipline–taking on an importance that those of us who labor in the “professional schools” will probably never comprehend. Carefully crafted arguments are important to me, but only as a method for stimulating or bringing about some sort of action–an improvement of practice.

It is, admittedly, very difficult to listen to a densely packed essay, with many twists and turns, with a thesis,and then a deliberate modification of that thesis, and then generalizations that account for both the thesis and its exemptions…And when someone is reading a densely argued paper there are really only two things one, as a member of the audience, can do: listen atttentively (honing one’s interpretive and critical skills) . . . or fall asleep!

This is a great reminder of how dramatically different the teaching and learning perspectives are among our various disciplines. Our approaches to pedagogy have to be as rich and varied as the disciplines we support.

How Good is Good Enough?

Are You as Good a Teacher as You Think?

One of the hardest parts about most of our work in academic technology is trying to figure out how to evaluate our progress. Every workshop could be tweaked to be just a little better. Every web site could be made a little more user friendly. Every class offers an endless opportunity to improve assignments, clarify explanations, or provide better feedback to students. How much is enough?

Paul Price, a psychology faculty member at Cal State, Fresno, has published an interesting essay that focuses on why it is so difficult for us to judge our effectiveness as teachers (or as people who support teachers). He begins by citing a study showing that 94% of faculty members at a major research university considered themselves to be better teachers than the average at their institutions. As a statistician, Price believes that somewhere in the neighborhood of 50% actually are better than average teachers–whatever that ultimately means. The tendency to overestimate our own abilities is perfectly natural: “…there is plenty of evidence from social-cognitive psychology that pretty much anyone who isn’t clinically depressed systematically overestimates his or her own traits and abilities in a wide variety of domains.” Social psychologists studying “social judgement” have documented the tendency in our assessment of friendliness, driving ability, health, and the quality of our work.

According to Price, college teachers are particularly susceptible to these kinds of errors because most faculty members work extremely hard, but they have unusual freedom to focus on things that are important to them. In research universities especially, faculty members decide what courses they teach, how to organize them, what materials to use, what exams and assignments to give. We work very long hours, but generally alone or with the students within our own classes. The fact that our colleagues are working just as hard seldom comes into our field of awareness.

Our ability overestimate our effectiveness is complicated by the fact that we can define good teaching in so many different ways and then use those self-defined definitions to rate our own competence. I might consider myself an excellent teacher because I engage my students in authentic learning activities while my colleague across the hall considers himself to be a truly outstanding lecturer who considers student involvement to be one of those hippy fads that will ultimately go away. Each of us finds security in our own definition of excellence.

Our ability is further compromised by the difficulty of getting valid feedback on our performance, in spite of the amount of time, energy and cash institutions invest in faculty and course evaluations.

As psychologists have repeatedly demonstrated, social feedback tends to be incredibly misleading. Social psychologist David Sears has studied what he calls the “person-positivity bias”—people’s tendency to evaluate other people positively in the absence of any good reason not to. In an examination of student evaluations of their professors at UCLA, comprising literally hundreds of thousands of ratings, Sears found that the average was 7.22 on a nine-point scale… As a result, these kinds of student and peer evaluations tend to confirm our inflated views of our own abilities. A better interpretation of your rating of six on a seven-point scale, then, is that you have no extremely obvious shortcomings. That’s a long way from being a superstar.The better-than-average effect extends beyond judgments about the selfto judgments about almost any individual.

Price acknowledges that a certain amount of self-deception is probably healthy:

scholars from a variety of fields—philosophy, psychoanalysis, and evolutionary biology among them—have argued that this kind of self-deception may be functional. One contemporary view in psychology is that being unrealistically optimistic about one’s traits, abilities, and level of control over the environment is an important component of good mental health

Doing justice to the complexity of teaching, however, requires us to look beyond the natural biases of our psychology by 1) learning more intentionally from our colleagues about their teaching, 2) reflecting systematically on our own strengths and weaknesses as teachers, and 3) communicating more creatively with our students about the substance of their learning. Price closes with the following thought: “When we accept the proposition that we’re not as good as we think, we’re already considerably better than we were.”