Monday, February 02, 2009

Transformational Teaching

The horse and carriage went out kicking and neighing, and left a deep impression in the first automobiles, which were designed to look like a carriage...without the horses. Technology is transforming education before our eyes as well. Two high school science teachers, Jonathan Bergmann & Aaron Sams, claim to have found an optimization that could be revolutionary.

The video I found on reddit is here: Mastery Learning that works!. I have to warn you that it's downright annoying to watch because of the patter and goofy scribbling that takes place over the mostly static images. Fortunately you don't have to watch it; I'll describe it here, and they also have a website you can peruse*.

Vodcasting is what they call their process of prerecording the static part of class presentations for students to review before coming to class. You might compare this to an active reading experience, in a situation where students took reading assignments seriously. An advantage of video is that speech and visuals can overlap--wow, just like on TV! Not only does this appeal to the screen-viewing generations, but also would seem to have some real advantages over reading static text. After all, reading is a relatively new phenomenon in the human experience, but our evolution was undoubtedly driven by speech and visual information. That is, we ought to be hardwired for this sort of thing.

Of course, this is what's been going on in the classroom since the mists of time gathered from the primordial dew. The difference is that with vodcasting, it can be asynchronous. The instructor does one recording, and the students can review individually. Some of the advantages the authors list include:
  1. Students who were absent really never missed a class.
  2. Less time tutoring students after school
  3. An amazing tool when teachers are absent
  4. Lessons going out to the world
It's the last one that ought to make the sleeping giant of higher education grimace in his slumbers. Video only has to be done once. This is a waking nightmare for textbook publishers, too.

So what do the teachers do? Because of my training, I think of this technique like data compression. Take all the common parts and lump them together, and then spend time describing the details. For example, look at the string below. How would you describe it to someone over the phone?
After inspection, you might say "repeat the sequence of digits 1 to 9 three times, except that on the last time, use two 8s instead of 89." The first part takes care of the big pattern, and the customization at the end takes care of the details. With Bergmann and Sams' approach, the teacher spends time on the detail--working through the actual problems students have, solving problems in class in small groups or individually, clearing up questions about the vodcast, and generally dealing with the most important part of learning: getting the details right so that students can demostrate new skills and knowledge.

In school, I always liked the courses best where the instructor took time to have students solve a problem or two in class--the time went faster, and I felt more engaged. I've always tried to emulate that in my own teaching, and encourage students to work together on these occasions too, so they'd develop an active vocabulary in the discipline. But the data compression (as I think of it) that Bergmann and Sams are experimenting with is an order of magnitude improvement on that idea.

I'm curious how well this technique works for other disciplines, such as the humanities. The overall implications for higher education could be profound--the whole curriculum and pedagogy could be turned on its head. High-quality vodcasts generated externally would be potentially used in combination with hands-on class work led by local faculty. Some universities already make available vodcasts (MIT for example). It's hard to say how this and other technological shifts will change the academy, but I think it's fair to say that it will not remain unchanged. The ground is already shifting beneath our feet.

*My wife tells me that 'peruse' doesn't mean what I think. From Latin, it means to read carefully, she claims. In common usage, it seems to mean 'to skim'. Looking at the Oxford English Dictionary just now, I guess somehow we're both right (emphasis added):
3. trans. To examine in detail; to scrutinize, inspect, survey, oversee; to consider, to take heed of. Now also (influenced by sense 4c): to look over briefly or superficially; to browse.
It appears to be a true oxymoron, like 'pianoforte' that means two opposite things at the same time.

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