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Breaking and Mending Your Students' Heart in Anthropology

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One of the more interesting themes I'm seeing in my music Coursera course is the theme of re-examning world music through different eyes. Like most students in the course, I decided to join the course because I am interested in learning more about non-Western music.

The good news is that I am being exposed to some very interesting and beautiful musical pieces. The bad news is that now it comes with a heavier burden of trying to reconcile innocent musical pleasure with the real world repercussions that musicians from many minority cultures face.

Breaking Hearts

To give you an idea of our World Music course so far, I can tell you that:

  • Week 1 pointed out that few listeners of popular Gregorian chant understand how it relates to an actual monastic ritual
  • Week 2 pointed out that on Paul Simon's Graceland album, some of the African musicans felt slighted. Some songs also de-Africanized the original recordings quite a bit.

OK....I wanted to learn more about world music, but did I want to learn this much? Maybe not, but I do have to acknowledge that I have enjoyed Gregorian chants without absolutely no thought of honoring the original intent. It's all about the soothing music.

This is an issue faced by teachers in many related disciplines including linguistics. In linguistics I often to explain:

  • Double negatives aren't really bad grammar - just rejected by the elite (that's √©lite).
  • Tracing linguistics and archaeology - except when it re-ignites an ethnic conflict.
  • And my favorite - just because a language doesn't have pronouns for "he" and "she" does NOT mean their society has eliminated gender discrimination.

Yikes! If you were hoping to just learn a little bit of etymology or a few dialect words in my class, you are going to be disappointed.

Mending Hearts?

Does this mean that I'm asking you to give up the joys of Shakespeare and Jane Austen? Or the joys of listening to Graceland and meditative chant? Actually it doesn't. What I want, and what I think the Coursera World Music instructors want is to develop alternative points of view, even if it's a little painful. It is a reality that we are educating students so that they can enter into different spheres of influence. Is it any wonder we want them to do "right" when they get there?

At this point, I can appreciate the Gregorian chant albums, and also the parodies? Sometimes maturity means understanding irony. And I do admit that learning about this cultural context of different world musics helps me understand them more than I would just listening naively. In fact, I had an interesting insight into opera recently which I had previously loathed. I can't promise I will be a fan, but I could probably appreciate a performance now if I had to experience it.

However, as instructors we also have to recognize that the views we are trying to change are not always maliciously meant. I'm someone who instinctively enjoys music without trying to understand the lyrics. Does that make me a bad person?

Many white Americans are interested in focusing on tracing their origins back to ancient Scotland or Anglo-Saxon England because it is an authentic part of their past. Aren't we all interested in our own history?

I do think it's important to expose mainstream students (code for white students in the U.S.) to alternative points of view without overburdening them with so much guilt they can't appreciate the positives of their own cultures. It's just as important as helping minority cultures understand their own positive accomplishments without being overly burdened with a tragic destiny. A little bittersweetness for everyone?

A Good Role Model

A person who's done a really good of this balancing act is Henry Louis Gates. If you haven't seen his PBS series Finding Your Roots you are missing good television.

The first series traces the geneology of various celebrities ranging from Kevin Bacon and Martha Stewart to Condaleeza Rice and Linda Chavez. The most amazing facts and stories came out and almost all of it was a mix of good and bad. Almost everyone had a juicy skeleton in the closet (there's been a lot of interacial mixing in our history), but also learned amazing revelations at what their ancestors did accomplish.

By the way, the person whose European ancestors arrived the earliest in North America ended up being Linda Chavez whose roots were from New Mexico. Her family arrived when it was still a colony of Spain and remained there even as the Mexican border got pushed much further south. They were also influential in the area for many generations.

It is a good fact to remember when thinking about the complexity of our relations with Latin America.

Cupcakes, Creativity and Women in STEM

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An issue that I and other continue to ponder is why it remains difficult to attract women to STEM fields (math, engineering, science). Despite Larry Summer's unfortunate remarks, I do think that there are more women capable of participating in STEM fields than actually remain long enough to do so.

An excellent NMC keynote from Ahna Skop reminded me that there is somewhat of a culture gap between what many women might expect from a scientific career and what is traditionally expected.

The theme of Ahna Skop's talk was how she bucked the notion that she was "too creative for science". Although she is a respected biochemist, she points put that she and many other scientists actually draw inspiration from the beauty of their field. Although she is proficient in number crunching, she also includes media and visualization in her lab. In other words, part of her motivation is to make discoveries and present beautiful images of them.

This struck a chord in me because much of my interest in the sciences is based on "pretty pictures". I've always been mesmerized by images of planets, nebulae, mineral and abstract visualizations of various scientific processes. I realize that STEM isn't always about pretty pictures, but I am intrigued at how much math I do use in my crafts, and how crafts can be used to represent mathematical concepts.

Topology may seem very esoteric to a lot of people, but knitting is full of topological puzzles. Similarly quilting is full of area measurements for cutting and placing fabric blocks, and yes embroidery also requires counting, symmetry, enough topology to get those threads where you want them. As I said, it's amazing what mathematical related skills people will use if the result is a pretty picture.

It's almost a cliche that quilts are used to teach geometry, but there is a basic truth to there. I bet the women creating geometric designs in their crafts have an inner mathemetician. And the women making soaps and jellies have an inner chemist. If only the actual formulas didn't scare the bejeezus out of these ladies.

I think the other reason I liked this keynote so much was that Ahna Skop is not afraid to let all of her activities interact. How many women are brave enough to submit cupcake images to a scientific journal? And who would think to start a worm art show? Or create letters out of cultured bacteria? She did, and it's a refreshing change of page.

Signing Off On Group Problem Submissions?

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In one of the engineering courses I'm working with, students are grouped into teams of four and asked to submit one joint homework assignment (usually with at least four problems). The instructor likes this structure because 1) students are able to learn from each other (i.e. peer-to-peer learning) and 2) she has fewer problems to grade.

But as some researchers have noted, there can be problems. One is "freeloading" (the slacker student who never appears and never turns anything in), but another is that students probably don't have experience working every type of problem. In most teams assignments of this format, students divvy up problems (one per student)...even if the instructor doesn't want them too.

Is there anyway that students can learn more from all the problems, even if they have been divvied up? Why not borrow a technique professionals actually use in joint assignments - the signoff sheet.

That is, you can make it a requirement that problems are completed early enough so that students can review content and then sign off their approval or suggest corrections if they see an error. Some students may not give problems a thorough review, but it will be with the understanding that they can't blame a poor performance JUST on a teammate.

This may seem very obvious, but I don't recall it ever being mentioned in collaborative learning literature, yet is very common practice in real-world team work. I think it's good way of symbolizing that everyone is responsible and that members are responsible TO everyone.

I can't claim credit for this idea - a signoff sheet has already been implemented in at least one database design course at Arizona State and another technology course at the University of Texas

The only disadvantage is that students might have to finish assignments earlier than the night before they're due (unless the instructor allows students some time to review).

Teaching at the Primate Level

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I've been seriously distracted by this WGBH/PBS NOVA interview with primatologist Rebecca Saxe, but it was so fascinating.

I've watched enough chimp documentaries to know that they actually do use tools (like a stick to pick up a horde of termites, apparently a major chimpanzee delicacy). Saxe notes though that apparently chimps and our other primate cousins are really not very good teachers.

She then goes on to explain the cognitive process of both learning (student) and instruction (teacher) as well as noting that cultural development also requires innovation. First you learn to make chili, you think to tweak with some extra oregano and cumin, and then you teach it to someone else.

But the trick to teaching, according to Saxe, is for the instructor to be able to reflect on what he or she is doing. As we all know, that is much easier said than done. Saxe then discusses what she calls the "magic triangle" - social/cognitive coordination between instructor, learner and "object" (maybe even an abstract object). The first evidence in children, she says, is when a child points out something to show their parents, something chimps don't do.

Maybe you've heard all of this before, but have you heard in comparison to what chimps aren't doing? What a great twist on the old innateness debate. Our ability to learn may be innate, but what we learn is still all environment.

If nothing else, it's a great introduction to many aspects of learning theory in a way any "chimp" can relate to.

Import/Export Literacy?

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I know we probably don't need a new literacy, but today I've been contemplating the task of possibly transferring large repository of links into I could hand-enter the links, but the repository does number in the thousands (in other words, I don't think so).

The better choice is to batch import them - this will be faster and more accurate, and will save me from potential Carpal tunnel issues. Alas though any import/export will require me to delve into the mechanics of file format and tags more than is normally necessary.

According to the blog, there is an import tool, but it only works with the Netscape bookmark file format. This would be fine, but not all lists of bookmarks are stored in your browser. If you're like me, you may lists of links in all sorts of places like a list in a Word file, a spreadsheet, your blogroll or perhaps in a database backend

That doesn't phase me, because once I get a hold of the Netscape book format, I know I will be able to massage my list and get it to work, sooner or later.

It's this magical massage process that I would include in Import/Export literacy. Throughout my career, I've been presented with some large block of data that I've had to import into a database, reformat for Quark, extract for further calculation or reformat into a human-readable report. At this point I have to pull out a set of magic wands called:

  • Export or to comma/tab delimited file
  • Concatenate (add canned text)
  • Use text functions to extract portions of the data
  • Insert special characters such as ^p for hard return

Sound complicated? I admit it's not intuitive, but it's not rocket science either. I've met plenty of literature majors who have taught me the ropes in their careers as copy writers. If you're willing to take charge and not let that software app beat you, you can learn this....just like I've been able to learn how to switch from DVD view to Cable view.

There's been a laudable trend to simplify what everyday users have to know ("plug and play"), but I sometimes wonder if we are hiding so much that we are hobbling users. Hiding extensions, folders and XML files from users doesn't always help them understand what's going on.

Even a simple process like converting a Photoshop file to a GIF file is confusing if you don't realize there is such a thing as a file type (much less a file extension). It's true that you can accomplish quite a bit without ever seeing the backend of a file, but what you can achieve WITH knowing this is so much more.

Introducing Embroiderers to their Inner Math Wizards

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Anyone familiar with embroidery, quilting, or knitting knows that some heavy duty math can come into the craft, depending on the pattern. Last night I was teaching a project called Optical Color Blending which is a showcase of mixing colors of embroidery threads.

Embroidery floss is actually made up of six smaller threads. Normally, you use strands of the same color, but can actually stitch with floss made of different colored threads (this is called blending). The Color Blending design is a triangle with each corner a different soliid color. In between are blends of two or three colors arranged in a mathematical pattern (almost like wave ripples). From a statistical point of view, the squares in the triangle represent all possible combinations of three colors in a piece of six-stranded floss.

The challenge was if I could explain this pattern to my fellow stitchers. I suggested they find their inner mathmetacians, but that just induced panic.

Instead, at the last moment, I decided to try an "active cognitive" exercise. I gave users a blank chart with only a few specifications filled in. I said that the edges were stepping from color 1 to color 2 in one thread increments, then I gave an example and asked them to project the rest (which they did quickly).

The tricky part, of course is figuring out what happens on the inner part of the triangle where three colors were involved. Interestingly though, just before I was about to give an answer for one triangle, someone guessed it correctly. The rest of the time was spent quickly filling in the chart, with some students helping others a little behind (embroidery would die without peer-to-peer learning).

Even though everyone swore they had no "inner mathematician", they all figured the pattern very quickly and seemed to enjoy the chance to outsmart the chart. It was an interesting case how people can be very mathematical outside a formal math class.

In any case, I found it a very enlightening "teachable moment" - in this case letting people deduce the pattern on their own was much more effective than my trying to explain it (partly because I think math sometimes defies traditional verbalization). In fact, one of the group noticed a pattern I had missed before (cool).

I've had mixed success in having people "figure things" out independently, but I'm hoping this will encourage me in the future. It was certainly a lot more fun than me lecturing while pointing at a tiny diagram for 20 minutes.

Is Independent Learning Really Learning?

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A few summers ago, I was very interested in getting FileMaker to convert hex numbers to decimal numbers and vice versa. This was an arcance enough question that I could not find a ready answer either online or in the user's manual. I was on my own.

What I did was create a solution based on lookup tables...pretty much on my own. The question is - Did I learn anything?

This may sound like a trick question, but consider that modern pedagogical theory places a premium on "human interaction", "joint activity" and "sociocultural practice." Consider this definition of learning and knowledge"

  • Knowledge is ability to participate in a community of practice.
  • Learning is becoming a member of a community of practice.

William J. Clancy, A Tutorial on Situated Learning

So according to this, I've learned only if I become a member of the community of practice (I'll call it Filemaker usage). But am I in the FileMaker Community of Practice (CoP)? Most definitions I see assume some sort of collaboration. For instance the "signs" of a CoP (according to Etinne Enger) all involve interpersonal communication - none of which I did. I did not ask for help, only researched it and experimented on my own. The most I may do is read some article and lurk on a Listserv. Otherwise I may be experimenting completely on my own.

So again I ask, according to this theory, am I really "learning" if I don't collaborate with someone else? Think about it.

P.S. The Standard Workaround

The standard workaround to this "paradox" is that my learning is "culturally" mediated - which in this case means I am using man-made software, learning from books written by humans and building on one Filemaker lecture seminar...but few theorists seem to really regard this as adequately "social."

By the way, I don't discount the need to get feedback from other people, especially when you are working to analyze a tough problem. But as a colleague once asked, why does modern pedagogy assume that no learning can happen until two people are in the room?

Don't Forget the Definition Box

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Now that I've worked with several technical courses, I realize that one of the more important and tricky parts of building a course is making sure students are properly introduced to new terminology in the correct sequence.

This may seem stunningly obvious, but I'm noticing there are a few interesting challenges such as

Forgetting What Students Don't Know Yet

A basic, but surprisingly common mistake, in forgetting that students are often starting at ground zero. For instance on the reality hair stylist competition Shear Genius, one of the Nexus professionals described a very easy style using just your difussor. Huh? I don't what a difussor is, but I'm pretty sure I don't own one. Of course for professional hair stylists, this is probably a basic tool - but for the rest of us...maybe not.

For the record, a diffusor is an extension for your hair dryer which lessens the air flow. It is recommended for curly hair.

The same thing happens to all instructors actually - they've lived in their own knowledge domain for so long that they really can't remember not knowing these "basic" concepts. Speaking for myself, I do have a sense that students don't know about fricatives (a type of consonant) yet, but somehow I expect that most people are familiar with the concept of the English Great Vowel Shift (the blank stares do cue me in to that fact that not all students are).

The Unending Path of Definitions

Depending on where you are in your curriculum, a definition for one term is basically a gateway a related definitions, which your students may or may not know.

Take béarnaise sauce for instance - many cookbooks say to make a hollandaise but use shallots, vinegar and tarragon instead. Which then leads you to hollandaise, "an emulsion of butter and lemon juice using egg yolks as the emulsifying agent" (Wikipedia Hollandaise, 18 Jul 2008). An an emulsion would be...?

I think you see the point - the more technical a course is, the more related definitions there are to work with, and it's difficult to judge what a student knows or doesn't know. Maybe a student understands emulsion, but has never heard of tarragon.

Shouldn't They Know that By Now?

How much do you have to review you teach an intermediate or advanced class? For instance, if you're teaching Accessble Web design and knowledge of HTML is a pre-requisite, shouldn't everyone already about HTML? Ha!

Unfortunately, there's always more review than any instructor wants to deal with. In my universe, even if I am teaching a 400-level class in phonetics and phonology, I know I will have to review all the phonetic symbols for the English vowels...again. The students all nod their head in class if they have already seen and memorized these symbols, but their homework says otherwise. It never hurts to review if you can.

On the other hand, it is amazing what students have forgotten. My favorite example was a statistics class in which many students had to be reminded that < is "less than" and > is "greater than." Even I say ugh.

Defining the Modern Student?

The good thing about the modern educational system is that it gives students from a wide variety of backgrounds the opportunity to learn what they want. The bad thing about the modern educational system is that it gives students from a wide variety of backgrounds the opportunity to learn what they want.

I think a lot of us still envision formal education as an orderly sequence of curricula. You take Widget 100, learn the basics, then move to Widget 200, 300 and so forth. But the reality is that an orderly sequence is not what happens. Some of us come back to school after a long absence. A lot of us transfer (moving between school systems, I missed World history but got American history two years in a row). And finally just about all of use change instructors between courses (it's a fact that you will see Welsh data sometime in my course while my advisor always had data from Southern Italian dialects). And sometimes an advisor recommends a 400-level class to a sophomore even though it's a 497 Special Topics class (Argh!!!).

It's no wonder that most instructors are forced to spend part of their time in review. On the other hand, there is an opportunity there...for students to learn from the specialists and for instructors to learn from their students.

A Formal Study of Online Social Loafing

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An important, but not always acknowledged, aspect of team work in social loafing or the tendency in some individuals on some teams to slack off and let others fill in the gaps. I think we've all experienced it from either end.

It's not a pretty aspect of team work, but since it can impact overall performance, I'm glad there is research on this topic such as this article on social learning on online student teams. If nothing else, I think it gave me some real insights on why some conflicts seem to recur on almost every team and what I may be able to do to mitigate it.

In the "Literature Review" section, the author pointed out some findings from non-online teams, namely that:

  • Effect of Size - The larger the team, the larger the temptation to loaf. A smaller team may have more productive members than a large one.
  • Distributive Justice - Members who felt they were more likely to share in rewards and recognition were less likely to loaf.
  • Sucker Effect - Actually more like avoiding being a sucker. If a team member senses that they may be "stuck" with a lot of additional work from a social loafer, then that person will become resistant to taking on too much work (possibly to the point of loafing).
  • Task Visibility - Members who felt that outsiders (an instructor, supervisor, audience) were more likely to examine the final product were less likely to loaf.
  • Dominance - If a team leader or dominant team member devalues a member's task/position/contribution, then loafing is more likely to increase. Interestingly, this can lead to a feedback loop because Dominant Person A can either try to do everything or assigning task elsewhere while Person B starts to loaf and gets a reputation of not being able to perform.

Do these sound familiar? They do to me. I think there are strategies a team leader can take to mitigate these such as making sure recognition comes to the entire team, taking on largish tasks if possible and understanding and acknowledging every member's contribution (and maybe bring cookies every so often). Instructors in courses can build anti-social loafing strategies into team tutorials.

To these, I would also add that if you feel that some is "loafing", it may be important to check with that person if something you don't know about is going on. I remember scheduling a weekly meeting that a student was always late for only to find out he was leaving class on campus and trying to get downtown in 10 minutes - Oops.

I think the one thing that does NOT work is asking people to be "a better team player" without acknowledging that social loafing is a real and ever-present hazard of team work and a major source of conflict.

P.S. - I should point out that I think many of these findings assume that many team members are more extrinsically motivated (looking for external rewards) than intrinsically motivated (doing it for the love of it), but I think many teams in school and work are powered by extrinsic motivation. We can't love all our duties/courses equally.

Testing Validity and Cancelling an Latin AP Exam

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Recently the College Board group who runs the Advanced Placement AP exams decided to eliminate four exams for financial reasons. One of them was unfortunately, the Latin Literature exam which covered texts from major Latin authors. The odd thing was that they decided to keep the Vergil (exam) or just the author who wrote the Aeneid and other works.

As you can imagine, the high school Latin teacher community was very upset and confused. If you were going to cancel an exam why would you keep the more specific exam? Vergil is an important writer, but hardly the only one out there. Focusing exclusively on one epic poem could give you a very distorted view of Latin culture. It would be like asking English literature students to focus only on Milton's Paradise Lost - great work, but it means you miss out on Shakespeare, Chaucer, Donne, Dickens, Hemingway, Faulkner, Toni Morrison and many more. Weird.

As it turns out, one instructor did write a letter to the College Board with her concerns and she did get a response from the College Board - but not one I might have expected.

As I understand it, the actual reason was that the College Board doesn't want to continue this particular exam is that they don't have enough resources to continue to create "psychometrically valid" questions for all of Latin literature (sticking with one author makes it much easier to test for validity.

However, as AP Latin Literature has slowly grown, it has approached the threshold that, once reached, cannot support the type of exam design AP Latin Literature uses (a test format that actually allows students to choose which questions they do and do not answer). Because AP Latin Literature allows students to choose which questions they answer, the psychometric validity of the exam results will be subject to increased risk as the program continues to grow, so the current exam design must be discontinued following the May 2009 exam.

There is no such problem with the AP Latin: Vergil exam, which simply needs a multi-million dollar investment (which we are making) to upgrade design specifications and standard setting processes to ensure that as the volume continues to grow, there is no risk to the quality and reliability of the assessment. So we will continue to offer the AP Latin: Vergil Exam in the near term, while working at the same time with educators to determine whether we should, over time, change AP Latin: Vergil to incorporate a larger number of authors.


I confess to being stunned. I agree that the College Board needs to invest wisely (they point out that many languages such as Greek, Russian, Korean and Portuguese have no AP exam), but there's a disconnect in the process. Although testing validity is important, it looks like the original learning objectives are being lost. Surely one of the objectives of learning Latin literature in Latin is to be able to understand and translate a wide variety of Latin genres ranging from poetry to prose. Another must be to become acquainted with many aspects of Roman culture and political history - not just one epic poem.

Choosing psychometric validity over learning objectives is one reason "teaching to the test" has such a bad name.