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Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Getting ready for the fall semester? Here are some hints.

Hi colleagues,

To help you with your preparations for the fall semester,  I would like to share with you some thoughts that are based on my personal experience of teaching in the Summer.

First, I present two unofficial feedbacks from my students (an official feedback is not ready yet) – not to brag, but just to demonstrate that at least some of my actions were appreciated by some of my students.

If it happened to me, it may also happen to you  (the past feedback is available here).

“Dear Mr. V,
I took both PY105 and PY106 this summer, and I just wanted to thank you for making the transition to online classes so seamless. I was worried about not taking physics in person, but with your approach I was able to do much better than I expected. You and the TFs have been so incredibly helpful, and I’m honestly very grateful for everything that you’ve done, considering it’s still a rather stressful time for everyone. Thank you so much once again, I hope you have a great rest of your summer.

“Mr. V, 
I just wanted to personally reach out and thank you for teaching me physics this summer. I’m not a native BU student, but you made the transition easy. You always responded to my emails and my Piazza questions in a timely manner. More importantly, I don’t think I could’ve asked for a better professor. You taught me the material so well and made sure labs reflected the content we went over in class. Thank you for everything. Enjoy the rest of your summer. 
Stay safe,
University of Pennsylvania,
Biology Department”

Ten general thoughts.

1. It is important to understand the difference between two forms of distant learning: “online” and “remote”. This difference is discussed in this article.

2. On-site and distant learning represent two extreme forms of a mixed-model learning, a.k.a. the Layered Classroom.

3. The results of effective teaching (i.e. the learning outcomes of students) do not depend on the format; the format of learning dictates the way teaching needs to be structured in order to achieve the best results. Technologies do not make a teacher better or worse, they just reveal how actually good or bad the teacher is.

4. No matter if students are physically present in a room, or participate live but remotely (in a lecture, a discussion, a lab team), or conduct prescribed exercises at the time of their choice (such exercises can include, but not limited to – watching recordings of lectures, discussions, experiments, reading, solving homework problems) the result of their actions depends on how good those actions have been structured by an instructor.

5. Every large class has students who prefer live participation and students who prefer to have flexibility in the time for conducting required learning actions. That is why students appreciate when they have a choice for selecting the form they prefer to use for leaning, even within the same course.

6. The most appreciated feature of teaching activities is their clarity for students, students like to understand what is happening and why.

7. Students appreciate when the lecture material, homework material, lab material and exam material are connected/correlated in a clear way.

8. Students like the feeling that they are taught by their professor. Meaning, “their professor” is the one who conducts the most of the teaching – in all possible forms. The difference between “learned from” and “taught by” is provided by the amount of the personal engagement of the instructor in the development of a course; reflected in  (1) the amount of actual interaction (at least – potential); (2) the amount of the material prepared by the instructor himself/herself.

9. The proportion of students who are engaged in learning and who are simply getting over with the course does not depend on the format of teaching.

10. Instructors act based on their own definition of learning and teaching. If learning is understood as consuming information then the source of that information does not matter, and an instructor becomes an information selector and coordinator and does not have to produce and deliver that information. In this case, teaching is not much different from training animals.

Two specific thoughts on the use of experiments in a course

1. Students like seeing their instructor doing some demonstrations (an example of a specific consequence of the general thought #8).

2. When planning a demonstration, be aware that depending on the format of your class, you may also need to think about some additional time to practice with it, and/or to organize recording of an experiment, and/or to estimate the best way to deliver a demonstration to the live audience.


“In 1913, Henry Ford introduced conveyor-belt assembly lines at Ford Motor Company's Highland Park, Michigan factory.[6]” (from Wikipedia)

We all know that using conveyor-belt assembly lines allowed Ford to make a transition from crafting vehicles for rich individuals to mass production of cars for the middle-class Americans (who Ford help to create by paying fair wages).

This is how I imagine that happened.

At first Ford got an idea from learning about existing conveyor-belts. He called on his engineers and charged them with developing the assembly lines. When the lines were ready, he gathered all his workers and told them: “Guys, I made theses conveyor-belt assembly lines for you. Now, go in there and figure out how to use them to make cars. Once in a while a librarian will be bring you a leaflet about nuts and bolts. God speed!”

And happy workers ran to the assembly lines and picked up the tools, quickly figured out who should stand where, what tool to use, for what and how, and started making the cars.

Does not seem plausible, does it?

Of course that was not how it happened.

Of course, Ford had a team that trained workers. In fact, one of the reasons to pay workers good wage was to reduce the training cost (via retaining good workers).

Why do we talk about Ford?

To illustrate the opposite.

When COVID19 forced schools, colleges and universities to close their classroom and to through all teachers, instructors, faculty into the ocean of distant teaching, it was done exactly like in my fictional history of Ford.

“This is your computer, a web-camera and the internet access – go and teach! Once in a while our “center for teaching and learning” will email you a list of helpful hints and resources (of course, you also could have just Google that stuff, but we will pre-select it for you).”

This is an excerpt from a plan I came across.

“Courses - Undergraduate and Graduate
All courses have been adapted to the … “mixed-learning” … model. Instructors began reaching out to registered students … with details on how classes would be structured and taught for the Fall 2020 semester. If you have any questions about your specific class, please reach out to the instructor listed on the Link.”

That’s it.

That's all of it.

This plan could have started from stating the central goal (BTW: the #1 responsibility of a manager) - that is to provide education of the same quality as for a standard face-to-face format (or at least as close as possible). Let be honest - the “mixed-learning” model is only a name, the real model (for 90 % of courses) is just 100 % online teaching (please note - not remote, but online!). And without making a clear goal - to keep the quality of teaching as high as before - things are getting cut: demonstration experiments are replaced with apps, labs got shorter - for the same money(!).

Why no administrator  dares to state that goal? Becasue then he or she would have to say: And this is how we will be achieving this goal!” And now we have a problem, because no administrator has sufficient knowledge about effective distant teaching strategies. In fact, almost no college and university administrator has sufficient knowledge about effective teaching strategies - period. Hence, they don't make the best decision - form the point of view of the mission of a teaching institution; they make a simplest and easiest decision - let everyone do whatever they want to. As long as students do not complain - everything is fine.

And now every instructor is figuring out on his/her own what and how he or she will do.

It is like gathering stay-home moms and telling them: “From now on, all of you have to run a restaurant”.

Do you really expect they all will start cooking like Gordon Ramsay?

For (much) more on the matter of teaching and learning:

·                Strategies For Teaching Science
·                Philosophy Of Education