Sunday, March 29, 2009

A Reminder, brought to you by the Muppet folks

(This monster, dubbed Beautiful Day monster after this sketch, first appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show. I've seen him on YouTube in sketches where he has the voice of Cookie Monster, so he may be a precursor to my favorite self-described "slightly lachrymose" monster.)

Saturday, March 28, 2009

How can we make higher ed more accessible?

Last weekend, I had the opportunity to attend the International Technology and Persons with Disabilities Conference, and I had the privilege of accompanying an academic mentor and friend of mine, Catherine Kudlick, a professor who is partially sighted and who is a superstar in the academic world of disability studies--you can read her insightful essay on blind boot camp to get a sense of her thoughtfulness about blindness and gender.

Cathy and I found ourselves at the conference primarily because she is chairing my university's new steering committee on electronic accessibility, a committee on which I sit and for which I chair the teaching and learning subcommittee. In hopes of learning where best to invest our resources, the campus's Information and Educational Technology division is investing a good deal of thought and energy into researching what's going on elsewhere in promoting universal access on college and university campuses.

I have to admit that, as someone whose decrease in vision can be fixed with a simple pair of glasses or contacts and as someone who is not current on the lingo in either disability studies or the various communities of people with disabilities, I was a bit nervous about attending the conference. Intensely curious and wanting to learn more, but nervous. (I soon learned that with Cathy as my very forgiving guide, I really had no need to worry. I was especially delighted when she took me to a fascinating discussion at a sci-fi literary salon for the blind.)

We spent two days at the conference, the first entirely on our feet as we explored four huge ballrooms of vendors selling technologies designed for people with disabilities ranging from dyslexia to autism to paralysis to blindness. I'm reasonably tech savvy, and knowing about all the cool mainstream technologies out there as well as believing there had to be a huge market for some of these assistive technologies, I was ready to be blown away by the awesomeness of various devices.

But: not so much with the awesomeness. The technology--and I know I'm not the first to note this, but it bears repeating--was infantilizing. It wasn't always clear to me which technologies were geared toward children and which were for adults. Pictographs looked like they came out of children's books. Devices featured high-contrast primary colors that looked more at home, in my experience, on babies' toys than on any device an adult would want to be seen with, even if the devices' primary market seemed to me to be people who were completely blind. Many of the devices for the blind seemed oversized. In addition, many vendors offered only mild variations on an unimaginative theme. As we made our way through the exhibition halls, I became increasingly jaded and--I admit--a bit sarcastic.

The next day, while having coffee with Cathy and a fabulous colleague to whom she had introduced me the night before, I couldn't help but comment. They asked me what I thought about what I'd seen and heard, and I described a series of particularly large-buttoned, plastic devices, each of which hung at the waist from a nylon shoulder strap. They looked like little accordions. I said I found the photos on the printed advertising materials particularly frustrating; to me they sent the message, "I'm blind! I can't do anything but stand on a corner and play this accordion!" To my relief, my reaction elicited knowing chuckles from my companions.

That day, we attended conference sessions by universities that had made greater strides in universal design and access than our institution has. I heard some very inspiring and interesting ideas from universities on the forefront of making learning accessible to all students.

For example, advocates of universal design at the University of Texas at Austin have not only provided guidelines on making websites accessible regardless of whether they use HTML or rich media, but have made available a dashboard through which campus webmasters can compare their sites' accessibility with others on campus. UTA has encouraged a spirit of competition among the webmasters and has offered webmasters scholarships to AccessU, Knowbility’s annual training institute that aims to make the web empowering for all people.

San José State University also has made a concerted effort at improving the accessibility of instructional materials. The Center for Faculty Development hosts faculty in residence specializing in the accessibility of instructional materials and offers a ton of resources on making instructional materials accessible. Faculty can, for example, learn how to create a PDF that is readable by text-to-voice software.

As a teaching consultant at my university, I must admit I'm dreading the day when the university system mandates universal design. Don't get me wrong--I want the university to embrace universal design, but I'm not looking forward to working with faculty who see overhauling their learning materials as just one. more. thing. they have to do.

Thanks to Cathy's chairing of the campus's electronic accessibility committee, we're taking a different approach. With faculty, we're trying to avoid the language of mandates and compliance and liability and instead talk about opportunities and social justice. What new opportunities open up for all students when we explicitly consider students with disabilities in our course planning, and when we think less about "accommodating" those students than we do about changing the ways we teach to better challenge all students?

What such challenges may look like, I'm still trying to figure out. For example, I'm also working on a visual literacy initiative at my university. Along with another mentor of mine, Professor of Education and visual sociologist Jon Wagner, I'm now thinking about the intersection of universal design principles with the campus's recent incorporation of visual literacy into its general education requirements. Should the university be thinking about multimodal and multimedia literacies instead of focusing on literacies that rely on one sense? And shouldn't all students be developing aural literacies as well as visual ones?

There are a kajillion resources on universal design, but based on my recent research, I recommend these:

Knowbility's blog addresses technology issues as wide-ranging as Facebook's recent redesign, an accessible version of Twitter, and universal design in voting.

Glenda Sims (the goodwitch), "the self-appointed web standards evangelist and accessibility goddess" at the University of Texas at Austin--who also was one of the speakers at the conference--writes about the twin frustration and satisfaction of educating software vendors about accessibility.

Visit As Your World Changes, where the blogger is adjusting to vision loss "with class, using technology." "seeks to educate the general public, the disabled community and the professionals who serve them by providing highly relevant information about new products, services, and training opportunities designed specifically to eliminate geographic and access barriers that adversely affect them."

Finally, my favorite find of this evening is Aimee Mullins's latest TED talk, in which she talks about prosthetics as delivery mechanisms for superpowers (or super fashions) rather than as markers of disability. Definitely listen for her comments on Pamela Anderson's prosthetics and Mullins's ability to "grow" from 5'8" to 6'1". (And if you're into shoes, you'll definitely dig the prosthetics Mullins showcases during the talk.)

What are your thoughts on accessibility in higher ed?

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Happy Ada Lovelace Day: Roxie Laybourne

Today, as many of you know, is Ada Lovelace Day, on which bloggers from around the world are celebrating women's contributions to technology.

My pick is someone whose work fell outside the temporal boundaries of my dissertation on women scientists working in natural history collections, but she very much could have been the centerpiece had I extended my coverage into the 21st century.

Roxie Laybourne, detail from a photo by Chip Clark

I'd like, in short, to bring your attention to Roxie Laybourne (1912-2003), who pioneered the field of feather forensics. I learned of Roxie when I was rummaging through the Smithsonian Institution Archives; Smithsonian historian Pamela Henson showed me transcripts of her interviews with Laybourne.

Roxie Laybourne, ca. 1944, courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution on the Flickr Commons.

Laybourne's scientific innovations came to light again recently when a plane landed in the Hudson River after a bird strike. You can read more about feather forensics on the Smithsonian website, and get to know the scientist herself better in an article in the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times. Be sure to check out the article to learn more about Laybourne's four rules of success:

1. Share your knowledge.
2. Keep your mouth shut.
3. Keep an open mind. Keep it your whole life.
4. Take care of your body.

In addition to pioneering tools and techniques related to feather identification--techniques that helped investigators solve the mysteries of airplane crashes and even, I believe, a murder--Laybourne also invented the cloacascope, a device for identifying the sex of whooping cranes; it has also been used to sex penguins.

My tubs of photocopies from the archives are at the moment inaccessible, so I'm going from memory here when I say that my favorite story about Laybourne didn't involve birds at all, but rather her recently dead beloved horse, a large hole she dug herself when she was no spring chicken, equine rigor mortis, and eventually a chainsaw.

I never had the chance to meet Laybourne, but I admire the way she put technology to novel uses that have saved human and avian lives by averting bird strikes on airplanes and furthering (thanks to the cloacascope) breeding programs for endangered species.

Monday, March 23, 2009

A favorite photo

My dad recently scanned in some of my maternal grandmother's family photos, and I'm so glad to be in possession of them. Here's my favorite--that's my mom as a newborn, 65 years ago this month. I love the blurriness of the photo, the way my grandfather is leaning forward, my grandmother's awesome jacket, blouse, and hair. How many new moms look that put together? I'm in awe.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Bullets of I think I can

• I'm setting off on a week of insane productivity, even for me. I have more detailed and organized than usual to-do lists, and the motivation to plow through (in the most thoughtful manner possible, of course) all of the tasks. These are all things that are much, much better accomplished sooner than later.

• I spent the weekend visiting my family in Southern California, and I once again confirmed that my genes want me to be willowy and svelte, even if my habits have let me become, um, sturdier than I'd like. So tomorrow is day 1 of my new low-impact fitness regimen. I'm not making any major promises to myself--just setting a goal to lose one pound a week for five months. I'm guessing the first five pounds will actually be the hardest, since they're the ones I've been wrestling with for the past few months. If I succeed, I'll be smack dab in the middle of the healthy BMI range. And yes, I know the BMI doesn't seem to apply to everyone's body type, but it works for my blood relatives, so I figure I need to pay more attention to it.

I'm particularly inspired because I spent part of today shopping with my sister, who is one of the healthiest people I know. She walked into Banana Republic, plucked three dozen garments from the racks, and as I watched from a corner of the dressing room, found that most of them fit her beautifully, with the exception of all being a bit short on her 6-foot frame. I admitted my jealousy and she said, "Not to be snippy, but if you had worked out for four hours a day since your early teens, you too could look fabulous in anything." I'm not about to work out four hours a day, but certainly I can return to the very reasonable weight I was when Mr. Trillwing and I married seven years ago.

For tonight, though, I need a bit more chocolate and some TV viewing. Must rest up for my big spring and summer!

What do you think you can do this week, this month, this spring, this year?

Will entrepreneurship save education?

(Cross-posted from BlogHer)

About a week ago, in response to the edupunk panel at SXSW, Jeff Jarvis tweeted,

Entrepreneurs will save education, not educators. That's my thin conclusion from #edupunk vs. #hackedu

Jarvis's tweet set my brain on about a dozen different paths at once--and I wish I could have captured them all, as I'm guessing all those neurons firing at once composed a book or two on the topic of entrepreneurs in education, the role of entrepreneurship in education, and entrepreneur education. This post attempts to make sense of some of the issues raised by Jarvis's "thin conclusion."

First of all, if you're not familiar with edupunk, check out the links in my BlogHer post on edupunk last year. Then, if you're still interested, check out "edupunk" coiner Jim Groom's five-part conversation with Professor Gardner Campbell, in which Groom and Campbell discuss and debate the usefulness of edupunk as a metaphor and movement.

Here's the deal: Jarvis's comment irks me for a number of reasons, but its irksome nature is in line with some potentially heretical (in the circles in which I run, anyway) thinking I've been doing over the past year or so.

Reason #1: I come from a family of educators and I'm an educator myself. 'Nuff said.

Reason #2: I've heard too many bad ideas floated at the intersection of "education" and "business." One example: Back in 1999, when I was a cub reporter for a newspaper named after a smelt that climbs out of the water to mate, I was sent to listen to Delaine Eastin, who was at the time California's state superintendent of public instruction, give a talk to the Long Beach Chamber of Commerce. As I jotted down notes in my little reporter's notebook, I found myself shaking my head in a very not reporterly way. Eastin proposed that local businesses might better support K-12 public schools by "adopting" individual campuses. In her example, a coalition of automotive businesses might provide significant funding and lend a certain degree of expertise to a school, and in exchange the school would, for example, teach automotive math (whatever that is), offer more advanced automotive shop courses, and have students read technical manuals in their literature courses. (As someone with two degrees in English, I believe I actually may have choked on my own vomit at that final suggestion.)

Reason #3: I don't like the arrogance of tone. I get that Jarvis is both a professor and entrepreneur, but the idea that educators will not play the primary role in "saving" education is ridiculous. If anything, the schools are where they are today because of too much involvement by bureaucracies and non-local initiatives (e.g. state-mandated testing, or No Child Left Behind) that limit teachers' autonomy in their own classrooms. As we're seeing at charter schools across the country, when teachers and parents are given greater authority over what their students learn and the methods by which young people are taught, good things happen. Does this mean entrepreneurs need to be left out of the evolution of American education? No. (See Reason #4.)

Reason #4: Jarvis in many ways has a point. I'm a huge fan of open source solutions in education. One thing some of us cheerleaders for open education fail to acknowledge is that in many cases the open source delivery methods--if not the content--are being developed in large part by people who are, have been, or I suspect one day will be entrepreneurs but who want to contribute to the public good through this project or that. (Automattic's development of WordPress, for example, comes immediately to mind.)

The older I become, the more accepting I am of the utility of entrepreneurship in education, even though I know as a left-leaning educator I'm supposed to be suspicious of profit-making enterprises. There are too many examples to discuss here, so I'll pick just one: When I hear edubloggers lament the popularity of attempts to monetize blogs, I want to counter with questions:

First, what's wrong with wanting to be paid for what one contributes to the world? (This question, of course, assumes a blogger is actually contributing something to the world, which alas is too often not the case.)

Second, how much might high school or college students learn about the way search engines, blogs, business, and systems of labor work by attempting to create a blog that brings in, say, $10 or $100 by the end of the semester? Students might--just to provide a few examples--learn how to focus research on a niche, think about the audience for their writing, develop products or services that would stretch their knowledge and skills, or learn the perils (and promise?) of affiliate marketing. They could discuss the ethics of outsourcing writing to folks on the other side of the world when many Americans are in need of work--just about any work--or the ethics of contracting with stay-at-home moms (one demographic that may be of interest to BlogHer readers) to have them write articles for $3 a pop, even though such a rate of pay likely means those moms are making less than minimum wage in some states. They might learn how writing a thoughtful blog on a niche no one else is covering--but which might be of interest to many--can suddenly make them "experts" in the eyes of the reporters who call them for comments on developments in their niche. This could, in turn, lead them to reflect on sources of information online and off, on expertise, and on their interest in exploring their niches for potential career paths.

I'm barely scratching the surface of this issue. If you'd like to read more about the intersection of entrepreneurship and education, I recommend the following resources:

What are your thoughts about the intersection of education and entrepreneurship?

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Extreme sheep LED art

Honestly, I don't care if this footage is real or doctored. I'm going to pretend it's authentic and declare it to be AWESOME.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Impostor Syndrome + Frustration + Impatience = Me

Regular readers may remember that just over two weeks ago I had a phone interview for a faculty position at a small university where I would very, very much like to teach and have awesome colleagues, several of whom I've met in person or via social media.

Here's the part I shouldn't be writing about from the perspective of Awesome University, my current institution, or my future career. But hell, I've been in "speaking truth to power" mode for some time now, so it might as well make its way into exhibits and wall labels in the Clutter Museum:

***UPDATE: I just want to say that I don't intend this post to be a pity party with the theme "Why the heck haven't I heard from Awesome University yet? Pick me! Pick me!" Though re-reading it in the light of morning, I see it might come across that way. Instead, it's a way for me to process some frustration I'm feeling about my current situation, with the delay since the Awesome University phone interview serving only to provoke a little crisis of self-reflection. Colleagues and friends at my university have assured me that it's still entirely possible that Awesome University is hung up on some bureaucratic point related to hiring, but the waiting has driven me to reflection--which is a good thing for me right now.***

Well, still no news. The search committee met on Monday to forward to the provost a list of candidates they'd like to invite to campus.

So I had hopes that I might get a phone call this week. But with every passing day, I move more from "I nailed that phone call" to a deeper level of self-doubt. I'd like to think it's Impostor Syndrome, but increasingly I just think of myself as an actual impostor. And not an impostor in the sense that I don't know what I'm talking about, but an impostor as in someone who is terribly, horribly out of place.

And it's totally not the fault of anyone at Awesome University Where I've Applied for a Truly Stellar Job. I want to make that clear.

This one's on me and my current institution.

Fact: On my campus, there are 2.5 people, not counting the half-time (and soon retiring) faculty director who runs our center, who perform the kinds of consultation and offer the specific forms of inspiration and experience that I do.

Fact: The university has ~2,000 faculty.

Fact: We reach hundreds of them in person each year, without giving a single traditional "workshop" where we "train" them how to teach. Thanks to our investments of time as well as intellectual and emotional energy, we have formed a peer-to-peer faculty development program with an awesome ROI.

Fact: Both inside my unit and in collaborations outside of it, I work with some of the best people at the university, faculty or staff.

My perception, perhaps fact: All of this labor goes largely unacknowledged by the university administration. I have never had a conversation with the administrator who oversees our unit (note: this person is different from our unit's faculty director), and I'm discouraged from doing so because I'm told this person is too busy. Meanwhile, I have had interesting conversations with, and received gestures of good will and confidence from, an administrator with this person's exact same title, but who oversees another giant campus unit whose primary mission is not teaching and learning. Since I'm a big believer, organizationally speaking, in webs rather than hierarchies, I'm unsettled by this gap between our office and the administration.

Fact: We're being moved into a cube farm at the end of this year. It will be in a converted veterinary sciences lab in a "temporary" building made by the same company, I believe, who made the Quonset huts during WWII. The architecture and materials definitely take a page from the Quonset hut book, and the building is of a similar vintage, I suspect. The building next door to it, which shares a name and fabrication techniques, recently suffered from a flea infestation, probably due to rats. (Fun fact: The building has never been named after anyone, and thus it bears the attractive name of "Surge III.")

Fact: This move will take us away from central campus, where much of the actual teaching of undergraduates takes place.

Fact: This is considered a cost-saving measure.

Fact: I oversee four big application cycles (2 grants, one fellowship, one grad student hiring) each year, and the programs that accompany them. I redesigned the unit's website and moved it to WordPress, initially with the invaluable help of a grad student friend and now with an undergraduate tech assistant that we can only afford for 30 more part-time days--which means I'll be the go-to person for the website soon. I organize one major half-day symposium each year, as well as co-chair and co-organize a week-long institute on teaching and technology. This summer, we're once again hosting international scholars from Asia and the Middle East for an intensive seminar on teaching in the Western world. I present at conferences. I publish in my academic fields. I consult with faculty by appointment and chat with faculty who drop by the center. I interview entire classes of students for mid-quarter interviews. I teach first-year seminars as well as a graduate seminar in college teaching. I publish bimonthly (formerly monthly) newsletters highlighting teaching and learning resources and best practices on campus and elsewhere. I sit on more committees than I care to count, and I chair a few of them. I consult with other organizations on campus regarding social media. I'm also working on a visual literacy initiative, for which I've been asked to produce a weekly newsletter and establish a considerable and innovative Web 2.0 presence. And I moonlight at another university, overseeing 14 master's theses for museum studies students.

Fact: We're so short on clerical support that in the past two days, a significant portion of my time has been spent doing data merges, printing form letters, stuffing envelopes, printing labels, and applying labels to envelopes.

Fact: My salary has been frozen.

Fact: I am 300% more productive in an office with a door than I am in a cubicle.

Fact: By coincidence (and, I think, cultural context), the men w/Ph.D.s who are affiliated with our unit (each .5 FTE) will have offices elsewhere to where they can retreat. The two women (both FTE, myself included) w/Ph.D.s will have cubicles and only cubicles.

Fact: My workload continues to climb, not decrease, even though I know that my transformation back into a cubicle-dweller will mean working in an environment where I am constantly interrupted, have little privacy for consultations with faculty who drop by, and where I do not feel valued by the bureaucratic unit that sits "above" ours on the university org chart.

So: I'm girding myself for a politely worded, thanks-but-no-thanks letter from Awesome University. In another context I might be able to take such a rejection in stride--after all, I love my job as it is now. However, the impending move and the perceived decrease in respect that inevitably comes with being a cubicle dweller means my immediate future is looking pretty bleak. Toss in Mr. Trillwing's gradually declining income (thanks again, newspaper industry!), and I'm just a handle short of being a basket case.

* * *

Here's a quick sketch I made that depicts how I feel right now. Those of you "in the know" may recognize a cartoonish, mouthy version of Awesome University's logo at upper left. At lower right is, well, my vision of my future working environment, with a shout-out to my current institution's big ag leanings.

* * *

I was talking yesterday to a history professor with whom I'm serving on the campus's electronic accessibility steering committee. She likes to think she savaged the final draft of my dissertation when she was on my dissertation committee, but really she has always been quite kind and supportive of my work as a scholar and a teaching consultant.

I shared with her my frustrations, and she gave me a big hug. We chatted a while longer, and when we parted, she assured me--as friends do--that if I don't get a campus interview, Awesome University has made a terrible mistake. (But all along she has also expressed her dismay at possibly losing me to another institution, also like an excellent friend and colleague.)

"Well, if I don't get an interview, will you send in some kind of scholarly SWAT team to kick some Awesome University ass?" I asked as we parted.

"Are you kidding?!?" she said. "I'm going to send them flowers."

It felt good to laugh.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Vicious cycle, or shooting ourselves in the foot

1. People stop subscribing to/advertising/otherwise supporting newspapers.

2. Newspapers lay off people in droves. Or they close altogether.

3. Newspapers decline in quality and shrink in size.

4. Fewer people read newspapers.

5. Mr. Trillwing, a newspaperman, finds out many of his responsibilities are being outsourced to someone whose labor is even less expensive than his. He loses about 1/3 of his take-home income.

6. We decide to save some of the money we lost by getting only the Sunday paper.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Using clickers in the university classroom

Recently "clickers"--a remote control-like personal response system universities are adopting in droves--have (quite literally) made the news. NPR ran a story on them, and The Chronicle of Higher Education (subscription only) provided an analysis of clicker economics and a critique of their use. (If you don't have a Chronicle subscription, Margaret Soltan of University Diaries provides the article in its entirety.)

So: Clickers--good or evil? That seems to be the question everyone is asking, and in many ways it's an annoying question. On the one hand, I think it's important to ask if clickers are useful in the first place. On the other hand, since they are being widely adopted, it's clear many faculty do find them useful in one way or another. The question then becomes, at least for teaching consultants like myself, "How can we ensure clickers are being used in a way that's pedagogically sound?" In particular, how might clickers improve students' experience in large-enrollment courses?

Near the end of the Chronicle article, Michael Bugeja writes,

I am still wary of clickers, and I asked professors in my unit if they were using them.

Jay Newell, who teaches advertising, consulted with his student advisory committee about using clickers in his large class. The students were against clickers, he observed: "One said that she and her friends would slow down lectures by inputting incorrect answers to poll questions. Another said that it was not unusual to have one student bring multiple clickers as a favor to friends in classes in which clicker responses were used to award credit."

I was intrigued that Newell had consulted with students and had created an advisory committee, an idea recommended by the same center for excellence in learning and teaching whose e-mail message triggered this essay.

And that's the moral of the story. Institutions have much to learn from students about the cost and effectiveness of technology. Chief information officers need to be consulted before departments invest in expensive for-profit consumer technologies. Professors need to realize that technology comes at a price, even when advertised as "free." Finally, administrators need to double their efforts at cost containment, demanding assessment before investment, especially in schemes that bypass mandated accountability standards.

Laura Blankenship (AKA Geeky Mom, whom I seem to be citing a lot these days) has a post about the importance of cost-benefit analysis in adopting new technologies to support teaching and learning.

I agree with both Bugeja and Blankenship: all parties at a university--students, faculty, IT folks, teaching centers, and administrators--must collaborate in selecting the best technologies for students. Too frequently, this isn't the case.

The best practices, it seems to me, for adopting clickers at a university include*:

  • Having academic technology services (or IT or whatever department is in charge of these things at your institution) set up classroom pilots of clicker systems from several different vendors.

  • Selecting from among these many vendors the clicker system that is most flexible, is platform agnostic (e.g. works on both Macs and PCs), and is inexpensive for students. This clicker system, and only this clicker system, would then be made available through the campus bookstore.

  • Working with vendors to provide students with the best possible deal. In the best-case scenario, students would pay once for a clicker that they could use throughout their college years, and then sell it back (assuming the technology is still current) at similar buyback rates for textbooks (best case scenario: the bookstore pays 50% of the clicker's original cost to buy it back from the student). Students would not pay per-class or per-term for clicker service; there would only be the one-time purchase cost.

  • Avoiding costly installation of clicker technology in classrooms. Instead, select a system that allows instructors to carry around a small box-type receiver that can be plugged into their laptops and easily receive feedback from student clickers, even if the clickers aren't in a direct line of sight from the box.

  • Ensuring that faculty in adjacent classrooms could use clickers without interfering with one another's sessions. Clicker systems should be multichannel. If memory serves, the system at my university offers 13 simultaneous channels in a concentrated area.

  • Training faculty on the systems prior to the start of the academic term, and having quick-response teams of academic technology experts who could be in a classroom within three minutes. Again, this is the goal of classroom technology support folks at my university, and it's larger than 5,000 acres, so I don't want to hear any complaining from people on 300-acre campuses. :)

  • Coordinating with the campus teaching center and any other relevant campus units (e.g. the student disabilities center) to ensure the best possible learning outcomes for clickers. This means not just holding workshops--which faculty tend to be loath to attend, in my opinion--but finding out from the bookstore who has ordered clicker systems and then working proactively with those faculty to ensure they are implementing clickers in a meaningful way.

Which begs the question: Is there a meaningful way to use clickers?

I'm no booster for clickers, particularly when I suspect they're being used as a substitute for true student engagement and interaction. Yet in very large enrollment classes--of more than 100 students, say--clickers can provide instructors with a way of gauging what students are learning.

For example, say an instructor asks a question of a large class and provides three possible answers (A, B, and C). She then asks students to raise their hands if they believe A is the correct answer, then B, then C. Inevitably, large numbers of students aren't raising their hands because they either aren't paying attention or, more likely in my experience, they worry about embarrassing themselves by raising their hands for an incorrect answer. With clickers, students can answer these questions confidentially. Faculty might then more accurately determine what proportion of a class is not understanding what's going on.

Since clicker systems have an option to identify individual students to the instructor, instructors could ask students to "log in" to their clickers for such an exercise. This would encourage even higher participation--particularly if a portion of the course grade was based on participation, which is not usually the case in large lecture courses. In my opinion, it's not wise to grade student responses to on-the-fly questions like the example given in the previous paragraph, but recording individual student responses would help faculty and teaching assistants identify students who regularly respond with incorrect answers and target them for additional, small-group assistance.

I have also heard of professors asking students to individually punch in an answer--A, B, C, D, or E, for example--then confer with their fellow students before answering the question a second time. Such a practice encourages students to help one another and reinforces student learning by having students justify their answers, explain how they arrived at their answers, and possibly even teach one another a concept. It also may reinforce for the faculty member the importance of giving students time to engage with and learn from one another.

I'm not sure those who have written about clickers recently have considered the promise of this technology in very large enrollment classes. For example, Margaret Soltan dismisses them with this comment:

Once again we take note of the way an alliance of commercial interests and slothful professors creates a shitty, expensive education for American students.

Certainly there are many instances--and probably even a majority of them--where clickers are not implemented thoughtfully. That's why it's important that the best practices I outline above are followed.

I also agree wholeheartedly with Historiann's assessment:

I can’t help thinking that all of the problems teachers may experience with not knowing if students are getting anything out of lectures could be solved by the old-fashioned technology used by top-notch prep schools and liberal arts colleges throughout history: classes small enough (say, up to 40) where professors know the students’ names and can gauge student interest and throw out provocative questions to keep student attention.

Amen. The real solution to the problem of large-enrollment courses would be to stop the factory farming of undergraduates. At my university we now have science courses of more than 900 students. That's not just insane; it's criminal. However, as a staff member of a teaching center, I can make my displeasure with that system known, and I can help interested faculty undertake research on the learning outcomes of large-enrollment classes versus seminars, but in the end the juggernaut of the university will bowl over those of us who try to stand in its way. After all, large classes give faculty more time for research (although I've found that adjuncts teach these large introductory classes much of the time, and adjuncts typically aren't required to undertake research), and large classes are very cost-effective, as they require only one faculty member and a small army of poorly paid TAs or readers rather than a very large department of more highly paid professors ready to meet with students in more intimate settings.

Until the day when large universities collapse under their own weight and those of us who care can say "I told you so," we're stuck with improvising solutions. And I think, used thoughtfully, that clickers provide some small hope of improving students' motivation and ability to learn.

*I owe a debt of gratitude to my local clicker guru, Robert Ralston of the University of California, Davis, who has spent years figuring out how these systems work, and who has reminded me of their benefits and liabilities on many an occasion.