The future of individualized instruction

paradigm-shift.gif ShrinkWrapped blog had an interesting post the other day about Paradigm Shifts, particularly focusing on how new researchers have “synthesized a new science of learning that is already reshaping how we think about learning and creating opportunities to re-imagine the classroom for the 21st century.”

Currently, most schools in this country offer education in the form of “collectivized” learning where all students are expected to learn at the pace of the slowest student in the class. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule, but the politics between teachers, school administrators, and state governments have created a very challenging and difficult situation for students and teachers who want to push beyond the expected norms. Creativity in providing individualized instruction has often been punished, or at the very least, discouraged by school administrators.

What is really interesting about the article ShrinkWrapped links to is that it is scientific confirmation in what we here in EdTech have believed for some time–the more ways you can provide the information to students, the more chances they have for being successful students. As the article puts it, “if we can create the right environment for a child, magic happens.”

The science fiction story ShrinkWrapped refers to is Henry Kuttner’s “Mimsy were the Borogroves“, an allusion to Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” poem. The story tells how two young children are presented with some radical new toys that teach them to think and act in ways that are very different than their parents can even comprehend. In fact, the younger of the two children (the daughter), who can barely speak, unravels the mysteries of the toys much faster than the older child. The older child (the son) has to translate what the daughter is doing for his father’s sake, but this father is simply too old to wrap his mind around the radical new concepts. Eventually, the children learn enough about their new toys to construct a portal through time and space to the origin of the toys (the far distant future). The father is left in the here and now (actually 1942, the timeframe of the story). 

Shrink’s point is that childrens’ minds are far more plastic and malleable than we ever suspected. Modern research is starting to confirm that children, and even adolescents to a lesser extent, can learn far more than what we are currently teaching them in the classroom. It is very well established that younger minds are able to learn multiple languages at a very young age, especially if children are forced to be bilingual or trilingual through their circumstances. When I lived overseas, I knew a fair number of people who spoke three or four languages fluently.

In the future, it is not inconceivable that everyone, regardless of income or personal circumstances, can receive a highly individualized instruction suited to their own unique learning styles. However, there are still some societal and institutional paradigm shifts that need to be made before this can become a reality. I’ve personally seen how difficult it can be for someone to understand a new way of teaching. However, I’ve also seen the “A HA!” moment that happens when the lightbulb finally clicks on. Unfortunately, no one ever seems to have the authority to provide the funding needed to make the proposed changes in education and teaching a reality.

NOTE: ShrinkWrapped is a professional psychoanalyst and has a number of interesting posts on a wide variety of topics. Also look at the comments for the Paradigm Shifts post for some interesting discussion

Blackboard courses older than two years to expire

On April 17, IT will perform a cleanup of all Blackboard courses older
than two years as part of Missouri S&T’s two year Blackboard course
retention policy. After April 17, any course content, enrollment, and
entire courses themselves which are older than two years, will be
purged from Blackboard and will not be recoverable.

If you wish
to retain content in any of these courses, it is important that you
archive, export, or copy off any content you wish to retain for these
courses prior to the remove date.If you require assistance with
archiving or copying off any of the course information, please contact
the Educational Technology team at 341-4131 or

should receive several email reminders during March, listing your
specific courses that are set to expire. If you are one of multiple
instructors for any of these courses, please coordinate efforts with
other instructors in the course to ensure any data which needs to be
retained is archived or copied by April 17.

If you have any questions about this issue, please contact the IT Help Desk at 573-341-HELP (4357).

Did You Know?

I found the video below and am including it on Educational Technology. The content of the video has been presented in other videos, but this is one of the most elegant packaging of the content I’ve seen. Plus the music has a decent beat to it.

In any case, the point of the video is that we as a species are rapidly progressing in ways we can’t even begin to understand. Are you ready for change?

Hat tip: House of Eratosthenes

Happy Holidays from Educational Technology

We here at EdTech would like to wish the students, faculty, and staff at Missouri S&T a safe and joyous holiday season.

With that in mind, check out the image below. One of our IT staff members put it together a few years ago. Since he now works for EdTech, we have hung it up on our window on the south side of Centennial Hall.

grinch-01-sm.jpgIn case you are wondering just who this ominous figure is, here are some clues: He is known for having a dog named Max, carving the roast beast at Christmas dinner, and stuffing Christmas trees up chimneys.

Blog Engine Issues This Morning

Due to circumstances beyond EdTech’s control, it looks like the Movable Type engine that powers the EdTech blog (and other Missouri S&T blogs) experienced some technical difficulties this morning that prevented visitors to our blog from posting comments.

It appears as though the issues have been resolved for the time being. For the ITCC folks who were at today’s retreat, it looks like you should be able to post comments. If you would like to post a comment to one of the entries below, we encourage you to do so.

Testing Comments

I am testing comments to see if I can get open commenting available. Although having registered commenters can be desirable, there are times when open commenting is preferred.

A Study in the Use of Clickers in the Classroom by Dr. Woelk

Dr. Klaus Woelk, Associate Professor of Chemistry, recently had an article published in the Journal of Chemical Education titled “Optimizing the Use of Personal Response Devices (Clickers) in Large-Enrollment Introductory Courses”. Among other things, Dr. Woelk is very active in teaching students introductory chemistry at Missouri S&T. He has soundly embraced the technology of clickers to help improve the learning outcomes of students.

While Dr. Woelk maintains his focus on using clickers for teaching chemistry, he also readily acknowledges and even promotes the fact that clickers can be a very powerful tool in  introductory courses for other disciplines such as mathematics and engineering. Basically, clicker activities can be broken down into two categories: “I am” and “I do”. Dr. Woelk expands each of these two categories into subcategories that involve different types of learning for different activities. For instance, “I am” clicker activities revolve around the student’s active participation in the lecture. Thanks to clickers, the instructor can get near-instantaneous attendance results. Instructors can also use clickers to identify how many of the students have been keeping up with assigned reading (and track which students are not keeping up using the clicker system’s reporting tools).

“I do” clicker activities are tied to the student’s understanding of the concepts, specifically learning, understanding and applying the material. Instructors can pose questions that rely on students understanding the fundamental principles of their discipline in order to succeed. Students can also be forced to defend and articulate their responses to clicker questions.

Dr. Woelk admits that getting students interested and involved in the learning process can be very challenging for instructors. Clickers is one way in which instructors can motivate students to learn.

Here is the bibliographic information for Dr. Woelk’s article, for reference (ACS/Journal of Chemical Education style):

Woelk, K. Journal of Chemical Education. 2008, 85, 1400-1405.

Transition from Traditional to Virtual: Textbooks


EdTech will be hosting a second Teaching and Learning Technology Conference in April 2009. Our theme is the Transition from Traditional to Virtual. In other words, we want presentations on how the classroom/learning environment is transitioning away from the “traditional” model between students and teachers.

Along these lines, there is a movement in some academic circles to move away from horrendously expensive textbooks produced by mammoth publishing houses that dominate the college textbook arena to the more focused, locally developed texts put out by professors at very low cost to themselves. The New York Times had an article recently about how some instructors use electronic publishing to get their works out there for the students. The cost of an electronic textbook can be, in many instances, much, much lower than a standard printed textbook.

Both MIT and a company called Connexions are starting to embrace a more open environment of knowledge sharing. MIT has created a repository of knowledge called OpenCourseWare while Connexions has its own repository.

The content for OpenCourseWare “reflects almost all the undergraduate and graduate subjects taught at MIT”. From what I’ve seen, the content is organized much like a traditional course, although all of the material is delivered electronically. It also is not a substitute for an actual MIT education and you cannot get course credit for using their materials.

Connexions, on the other hand, takes a different approach in that the content is created by a much broader base of users. It is “open source” content, using a Creative Commons license. That means instructors can use material legally (and reuse it) as long as the content is attributed appropriately to the original creator. They also emphasize a modular approach to learning such that the material can be re-arranged in usable chunks to fit a particular style of learning.

In any case, the New York Time article points out that textbook publishers have begun to notice this trend of students going online for their course materials and have jumped onto the bandwagon, so to speak, by creating their own electronic repositories.

Paper-based instruction an archaic (and obsolete) tool of the past?

analog_v_digital.jpgIn an article in the latest issue of Campus Technology, Dr. Trent Batson argues that paper-based instructional tools–i.e. the "traditional" means by which students learned in the past–are no longer much relevant in a Web 2.0 world.
The challenge for faculty who need to provide meaningful instruction to students is to engage the students in the world that the students are familiar with. Admittedly, this means instructors may have to use Facebook or MySpace in order to reach students (in fact, there is a Blackboard utility called Blackboard Sync that allows students to access Blackboard content directly from their Facebook page).
Batson offers a couple of questions for faculty members to think about if they are interested in incorporating Web 2.0 technology into their courses such that the pre-defined learning goals are still met.

1. What work is best to do with my real-world immediate presence?
a. What is the right mix of lecture, group work, experimentation (virtual or real), and of oral and electronic interaction?
b. How can my students connect with this work when I’m not with them between classes so they can continue their projects?
2. What work is best to do without my real-world immediate presence?
a. What rubric can I supply to my students for project or discovery work using the Internet and Web 2.0 spaces?
b. How can this work then be connected back to the classroom process?

Baston appears to argue for separating the course material into manageable chunks that students can access depending on if they are in class or out of class. This may require some tweaking of course material by faculty to make sure that students are still able to engage in the learning process outside of class time. Thanks to Web 2.0 technologies, students are no longer limited in what resources they are able to access to work on projects or term papers. Students can still use paper-based resources such as bound journal articles in the Library, but they can also access that same content online and–perhaps more importantly–engage the author(s) of a journal article directly or discuss the article in a forum or on a blog (in fact, this very blog post may be a good example of such activity, as you, dear reader, are invited to comment on this post).

[Read more…]

NASA’s Attempt at Educational Gaming

Image courtesy of
An article in Campus Technology discusses how NASA is approaching the idea of introducing a gaming element into education. Massively multiplayer online games such as World of Warcraft are hugely popular, especially with college students and high school students. Simulation-type games that allow you to live a "virtual" life (e.g. The Sims) or control the growth and development of civilization (e.g. Civilization) are also enormously popular.
NASA apparently wants to build science-focused games that will increase interest in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

"NASA will continue to pursue innovative strategies to encourage students to improve their interest and performance in STEM and related careers," said Joyce Winterton, NASA assistant administrator for education, in a statement released Monday. "The use of online educational games can capture student interest in NASA’s missions and science."

As an avid gamer myself, I tend to believe that games can teach students in a wide variety of disciplines. Games have always been used to supplement educational activities. If it is fun for students, they tend to have much more interest in it (at least based from my own experience as a student).
The enormous increase in computing power over the last decade or so has led to increasingly realistic and sophisticated games. Players from all over the world can interact with each other, fostering cooperation as well as competition. If there is some inherent structure in the virtual world the gamers inhabit such that they have a shared set of goals they need to achieve, even if the game is open-ended, then they will work together (or, if in a competitive mode, against each other) to achieve that goal.
In NASA’s case, they have an obvious goal of trying to more effectively explore space. Numerous challenges are involved in space exploration. Some challenges have been overcome by NASA (e.g. landing on the moon), while others still require significant research to answer (e.g. landing a man on Mars).
I would argue that for this project to succeed, the real challenge for NASA is to create a game that is a) fun to play, b) scientifically accurate, and c) engaging enough that students learn complex material without realizing what they are learning until they have to apply it to the challenges within the game.