Teaching Notes: July 2010 Archives

LDSC10: Can this Boring Course Be Saved?

| | Comments (0)

The online Summer Camp survey I filled out asked for our takeaway points, and I admit that one thing I remembered was a discussion of how the lessons from Sam Richards class on race relations could be applied to an accounting course...because accounting was not nearly as exciting as what Sam was doing. While I do not think a pedagogical design for accounting would be like that for a race relations course, I am concerned that we almost all agreed that accounting is boring.

Boring to Whom?

But I think "boring" is in the eye of the beholder. I know at least two people who said they liked working on payroll. Both were educated women who are widely read and widely traveled, and I don't think either planned to specialize in payroll, but now that they were in that career path...they actually liked it. As audience members pointed out, the FBI uses forensic accountants all the time to track down criminal operations...so there must be an element of creativity somewhere.

I can't say I am a payroll fan, but I am not sure I would pick a race relations seminar as being "exciting" either...unless it's being taught by Sam Richards. The stereotype of the diversity seminar that makes people cringe exists for a reason. But Sam is exceptional for being able to communicate his passion for the subject - not the facts we should all know, but why the issues fascinate him. When taught that way, it IS fascinating.

Course Content: Dead or Alive?

One thing I have learned is that anything can be interesting if taught by someone who really understands it and really loves the subject. I got some great stories about superheated steam (invisible and deadly) from a thermodynamics instructor, and interesting comments from a nutritionist about how you can save or destroy your diet at the sub shop (the basis of the Sub Sandwich MTO). At some point in the development of the thermodynamics course, I realized how powerful and important steam and entropy is to any society, but especially one relying on electricity and refrigeration.

On the other hand, a bored instructor can kill even the most glamorous topic. I distinctly remembered a mummification lecture in my Egyptian archaeology class that did put the class into a state of suspended animation. It's tragic when the life is sucked out of a description of the disembowlment process needed to place the internal organs in little ceramic jars. But the man turned out to be much more into Bronze Age shipwrecks off the coast of Turkey - I was sorry I wasn't in THAT course with him.

The Coolness of Phonology

I have to confess I have the accounting challenge called "phonology" in the field of linguistics. Like statistics or accounting, this is a course with lots of annoying terminology and symbols to memorize. I wasn't always a fan myself, but once I got into it, I realized that phonology is an AWESOME tool for understanding "cooler" topics like historical linguistics and dialectology. When a Bravo Housewife reverts to her native accent under emotional strain...you are seeing phonology and sociolinguistics in action.

When I am teaching phonology, I realize I have a challenge in helping others understand the inherent coolness of phonetic features. But I am willing to do it because it IS interesting and every semester, I think I convince at least one more person (hopefully more), that phonology can be your friend.

So when I am stuck with a "boring" course (nutrition, accounting, race relations, thermodynamics, whatever), I have learned to dive in and find out why people study this stuff. I'm often amazed to learn that it IS interesting after all. Now if only we could convince all our instructors that they really aren't teaching boring courses....

Online Learning: It's Still All About the Learning Objective

| | Comments (1)

Today's presentation by Chris and Cole sparked a discussion on how they can be applied to online learning. One interesting comment I heard was that having defined learning objectives was constraining the design.

But maybe the problem is that we are using the wrong learning objectives. The traditional design process is that we define learning objectives and tie "content" and assessment to those objectives. So...if you start with the wrong objectives, the design will, by default, NOT be correct.

If your "objectives" are low level memorization of facts, then the design can lead to a course with lots of multiple choice quizzes (and this may be exactly what's needed in some cases)....On the the other hand, if your objective is learning to analyze, build or discuss/debate, then multiple quizzes should be out. You should know that you need to review data, or start a discussion. The old congruency model does work...if you start with the right objectives.

Another debate is whether "content" exists or not. I think both sides are looking at that wrong too. In many cases, it may be really "skills", but skills rarely exist in a vacuum. If I want students to perform an acoustic analysis....I do have to teach acoustic terminology, acoustic theory. I can't just send them out with a sound recorder in Week 1.

To me the trick has been getting students from ground zero to a point where they can make recordings and do something meaningful with them.