Friday, November 05, 2010

EduPunk and the Matthew Effect

Inside Higher Ed today has a piece on "The Rise of Edupunk." I didn't find much new in the article, except that perhaps mainstream institutions are beginning to pay attention, but this struck a chord: Quoting Teresa Sullivan, president of the University of Virginia,
In a bow to the “Edupunks,” Sullivan explained that Virginia is incorporating student habits into its pedagogy.
In "Edupunk and the New Ecology" I proposed three elements necessary to student success outside the academic walls:
  • Access to quality learning materials
  • A learning community
  • Motivation to succeed
I find it interesting that the conversation is moving beyond technology and specifically focusing (at least in this instance) on non-cognitives. As a case study, we might consider Matthew Peterson, whose story is summed up in MITnews from Nov. 3:
In his junior year at Klein Oak High School in Spring, Texas, Mat Peterson — now an MIT freshman — was struggling with the his physics course. A friend of his recommended that he look at MIT OpenCourseWare, where Peterson turned to Walter Lewin's videos and found the help he needed.
Matthew was motivated enough to use MIT's Open Course Ware. Here's the branding from the website:

No registration required. I would suggest that young people today (rightly or wrongly) expect intellectual property to be public property: songs and movies are free to download, information on any topic is at your fingertips, and there is impatience with any barrier that gets in the way. And in fact, the actual knowledge that professors design to deliver in curricula falls into that category. Think about how archaic the idea is of lugging around a Biology textbook. And paying $150 for it when everything you need to know is already free online seems ridiculous. A week ago I wrote about the Fat Middle, and textbook publishers are a good example of one ripe for revolution. But it's not just textbooks. Lectures too. The whole traditional delivery of static classroom experience is already freely available for many subjects. The effect on MIT itself has been significant. In a "MIT OpenCourseWare: A Decade of Global Benefit", Shigeru Miyagawa writes:
Over the past 10 years, OCW has moved from a bold experiment to an integral part of MIT. Currently, more than 93% of undergraduates and 82% of graduate students say they use the site as a supplement to their course material or to study beyond their formal coursework. Eighty-four percent of faculty members use the site for advising, course materials creation, and personal learning. More than half of MIT alumni report using the site as well, keeping up with developments in their field, revisiting the materials of favorite professors, and exploring new topics. Open publication of course materials has become an ordinary element of scholarly activity for MIT faculty, and the ubiquitous availability of that curriculum to our own community has become the everyday reality of teaching and learning at MIT. 
So how does this play out over the next decade?

The Matthew Effect wasn't named for Mr. Peterson--that's just a happy coincidence. Some time ago, in assessing our general education goals (not my current institution), I found indications that "higher ability" students learn faster. The graph below is taken from Assessing the Elephant. It shows assessed writing ability for a cohort over six semesters, controlled for survivorship. The cohort is split into high and low GPA groups. It's not surprising that the high GPA group was judged on average to have better writing skills, but it was surprising to see that the amount of change was so different.

This jibes with my own classroom experience, however, and I would venture to guess that (as Gladwell poses in Outliers) talent and motivation go hand in hand. In fact, we have evidence for that. In a recent post, "Assessing Writing," I showed that if we can just get the low GPA students into the writing lab for help, we can significantly improve their writing over four years. If this is true, then their ability is constrained by activity and engagement and not solely by innate talent.

I had not seen the Wikipedia article on the Matthew Effect before, but it's interesting:
[E]arly success in acquiring reading skills usually leads to later successes in reading as the learner grows, while failing to learn to read before the third or fourth year of schooling may be indicative of life-long problems in learning new skills. This is because children who fall behind in reading, read less, increasing the gap between them and their peers. Later, when students need to "read to learn" (where before they were learning to read) their reading difficulty creates difficulty in most other subjects. In this way they fall further and further behind in school, dropping out at a much higher rate than their peers.
If we apply this same idea to the Edupunk model, what we might expect is that self-starters, confident students, and those with enough knowledge and skill to begin self-education, will flourish like Matthew Peterson.  On the other hand, a student who struggles in school and as a result doesn't like it much, seems unlikely to be in a position to benefit from the OCW or other free resources. This is a recipe for an increasing divergence between intellectual haves and have-nots.

A Modest Proposal is to begin early to teach students how to access and use self-serve education. Honestly, this has to start in the home--the teachers can't do it all. The article "Home Libraries Provide Huge Educational Advantage" from Miller-McCune points to research linking home libraries to educational achievement.

Home library size has a very substantial effect on educational attainment, even adjusting for parents’ education, father’s occupational status and other family background characteristics,” reports the study, recently published in the journal Research in Social Stratification and Mobility. “Growing up in a home with 500 books would propel a child 3.2 years further in education, on average, than would growing up in a similar home with few or no books.
(Here's Science Daily on the same topic.) How might it work? Math instruction would be very different from the traditional approach. Instead of telling students that the equation for a line is y = mx +b, they'd be tasked to go out and find it. Or figure out that the formula is needed at all. There are many "meta" levels of questioning. If we built this kind of inquiry into the curriculum from the start, we'd avoid the "catch-up" information literacy training we try to do in college.

Note that I don't propose this as a panacea or some great new idea that could revolutionize education. There is enough snake oil on sale already. But complex problems require evolutionary solutions, and this seems like something that ought to be tried out. The proof is in the actual success or failure of the attempt.

Mass culture in the United States works against us. The irony of the information age is that although deep veins of accumulated knowledge are there to be mined, most informational interactions are expected to be brief and shallow. Television is an extreme example, but it seems pervasive to the point of oppressiveness. And so we come back to non-cognitives. It's like the problem of building self-discipline: a chicken and egg dependency.  (If you procrastinate on learning how to not procrastinate...) It isn't really about learning. It's about wanting to learn. So I leave you with the problem at the heart of the edupunk Matthew Effect:

How do people learn to want to learn if they don't want to?


  1. At the start, learning to want to learn would emerge from finding an objective where the individual is lacking skills/knowledge to get to an end that they are already motivated to get to. So you have to meet the would-be learner at their point of interest.
    Hopefully, the experience of learning in order to attain their goal would add on further goals as well as open their thirst for learning itself.
    However, the real dead end is when there is no objective that the individual is already motivated about or interested in.
    How do you plant motivation when someone's content with the status quo of their life, lives around them, and their circumstances?

  2. That's how I see it too. And some of the subjects we want students to take an interest in (like grammar) can't compete with the sort of interests that are catered to them in pop culture.

  3. Fascinating. Actually, it sounds like what you're saying ties in very well with the unschooling movement:

  4. Drew Beahm12:29 PM

    I think we need to find a way to show connections between the stuff that pop culture has them interested in and the stuff we think they should be interested in, even if these connections are artificial and transient. We need to stay cognizant of the motivations behind "what we think they should be interested in."

    With that being said, I have trouble imagining why we would want our students to be interested in things "like grammar." Students aren't interested in grammar, nor should they be. The idea of teaching grammar and getting students to care about learning [the academy's] grammar is outdated, and for good reason.

  5. Drew, you can probably get by without knowing grammar until you try to learn a foreign language (in an academic setting), when it would be necessary.

  6. Drew Beahm1:10 PM

    Thanks for your reply, Dave.

    I had not considered grammar's applicability to that context.

    Perhaps this is indicative of an erroneous approach to teaching foreign langauge in the academy? I know that my Korean students are better talkers than writers for this very reason. Their prose is dotted with group noun errors, over-regularizations, and overuse of "signal phrases" that do not muddle their messages verbally. This, of course, cannot be the only reason, but it seems to me to be a prominent one.

  7. Anonymous1:12 PM

    Sometimes I concur that there is value in discovery learning. However, I find myself wondering how learners can progress to the point of developing new knowledge if they must reinvent the existing knowledge. As an example: when learners move into the chemistry lab, should they have to discover/reinvent beakers? Or should they learn about the design and value of beakers and proceed to use them to learn something new and more advanced?

  8. Anonymous1:20 PM

    I think they should be told that they need something that will safely hold and measure liquid solutions with beakers being available in the lab. Once they use the beakers for these purposes, they will necessarily learn about their design and value.

  9. Drew, I think I saw something similar when I taught a semester in Shanghai. I'm not sure how to evaluate it, since Chinese grammar is so different. In German, I struggled with the dative case because it seems more flexible in that language, and we don't mark up our nouns for it in English. I suppose you could learn the idea through repetition the way children do. I'm out of my depth on that question, and will defer to the language teachers.

    On Anonymous' point--it's really a tragedy that we have to spend such a large percentage of our life just getting up to speed on what we need to know in order to earn our keep (so to speak). Anything that could shortcut that process would be great. I'm not sure people generally care about it, strangely enough--why are we still teaching classical geometry in schools (I mean proofs from axioms, not analytical geometry, which is obviously useful)?

    Actually, you just gave me an interesting idea. I need to go think about it for a while :-)