Friday, July 01, 2011

Building a Teaching and Learning Technology lab

Thanks to our always-helpful government grants office, we were able to find money to develop a technology lab for teaching and learning. We brainstormed for a way to augment our existing installations, which already provide a lot of technology for course instructors. Given our new foray into online learning, lecture capture seemed the best bet--it's focused, manageable under our budget, and can give us an immediate payoff. It's also scalable in application from simple video recording to much more sophisticated productions. It will shine a light on our distribution system for electronic media too, and prompt infrastructure improvements that will have multiplier effects.

"Lecture capture" is of course a terrible name for it. Lecturing means literally reading, which is what our academic forbears did before there were enough books to go around. Like wearing those heavy black robes in the May sun, some ideas are ripe for overhaul.

There's a nice introduction by Educause here (pdf), if you want to see what they have to say.

What if we started from scratch?

It's not just the robes and readings that have seeped into the weave of the academic tapestry. Exposing young minds to the conceptual treasures of our disciplines is constrained by the combinatorics of time and space so that that certain optimizations are so standardized we don't think about them. Like having students sit for fifty minutes at a stretch in classrooms. What if instead we could engage them for ten minutes at a time on focused topics all day long? Another optimization is that all students in the class get the same linear flow of narration, and the discipline itself gets strung out into a one-dimensional string, codified into textbooks and syllabi that have the same linear style.

Imagine if the world wide web were like that: a single linked list of information, so that you had to start at the beginning and work your way forward link by link until you got where you wanted to go. It's a lousy way to organize rich information.

Sometimes concepts do have prerequisites. Math is full of it. But even in math there are optional topics, and opportunities to go into more depth even the simplest subject. If you want, you can think of the long multiplication process you learned in third grade as a convolution product, which can be optimized with Fourier transforms. One of my professors in graduate school (David Kammler) took an approach he compared to "Island hopping" as practiced in the Pacific theater in WWII, which consisted of learning certain important topics in depth and assuming that students could then make logical leaps to nearby topics, which could be skipped or treated as exercises.

Imagine instead of a linear trip through a discipline, we captured key ideas and used those as anchors for a network of related facts, concepts, processes, etc. One immediate advantage would be the ability to easily update the network as the discipline changes. Group evolution is back in vogue? Add a node and stick it in there. No need to fell a forest for the new edition of a book. Another advantage is that focused topics can be crowdsourced, as in Wikipedia, with experts in sub-sub-sub-fields filling in blanks ad infinitum. Other thoughts:

  • interdisciplinary connections become easier to integrate naturally
  • because learning happens in detail, it's easier to assess a small topic than a big one, allowing for faster improvement of the captures and related pedagogy
  • custom methods can be applied more easily to particular topics. Think apps. When you get to the bit about singular value decompositions, you can download the stuff you need to see it in action, and then it can go away. It's modular.
  • It creates a way for professionals to agree on something. A whole textbook? Never happen. But a five minute tour of Darwinian evolution? Better odds. This standardizes at the right level. You can still customize your curriculum--just match assessments to content.

All of this is probably being done in bits and pieces now, this divide and conquer approach. But it hasn't gelled yet into a common framework supported by real infrastructure and common culture (like say Wikipedia is).

I don't want to go all Utopian here, but let me push this one step further. With a rich network of high quality instruction/assessment/activities modules, the whole idea of a course becomes outdated. I know, I know, that's scary stuff. But if we don't have to have students sitting in desks for fifty minutes at a time, why do we need them for 15 weeks? All that really matters is that they learn and demonstrate mastery of concepts that we think are important. So then our whole bureaucracy can go hard a-port and do something really interesting. All that bricks and mortarboard infrastructure can be focused on motivating students. I've written enough about that already, so I'll stop here.

I should hasten to add that our modest project at my institution has none of these grand ambitions.  I will be selling the idea that a "lecture capture" doesn't need to be 50 minutes long, however, and keeping my eye on the horizon...

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