Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Teaching Naked (a review)

The biggest lesson to draw from Jose Bowen's Teaching Naked is that it's time to flip the classroom: use podcasts and other technologies out of class and devote class time for more lofty pursuits. While Massive Open Online Courses threaten traditional models of higher education, many students have also come to know and appreciate the flexibility online delivery can offer. If a faculty member can record a good lecture once, perhaps with careful editing, then sharing that recording is easier and better than doing it even a second time. Students can watch it out of class and that leaves class time for collaboration, debate, developing curiosity, evaluation, synthesis, reflection, oral and written work, discovering information sources, making interdisciplinary connections, creative expression, speculation, and so on. It may be possible even to use someone else's lectures, if they are good enough (and many are).

There's no escaping the fact that the Internet has changed everything. There is so much information available on line that the role of the faculty member is no longer to offer content, but to filter the content and package it. People will pay for apps, he pointed out, which package and deliver selected bits of information which is already available for free. The roll of the faculty member therefore is like a good app - they helping students find, filter, sort, focus, assess, critique and process information that they already have access to.

Bowen, a professor and Dean of the Meadows School of the Arts at Southern Methodist University, is savvy and enthusiastic - A game he created asks students to assemble a band using tracks of famous artists, each playing the same song in different styles. Educators often disparage games, he says, simply because of the content they often deliver. But there is much to learn from the games; good ones tend to be "pleasantly frustrating," or moderately challenging. Players progress at their own pace and there are small rewards along the way.  Knowledge and skills are accumulated, and they are highly motivating.

He offers a lot of good advice, and much of it goes deep. There are tips and examples for what to do in and out of class. For example, he says communication with students becomes more important with the new model of learning, and (surprise) it is often best done remotely with virtual office hours and any combination of twitter, facebook, google groups, screen sharing, email, skype, dropbox, podcasts, and so on.  Choose one or two communication modes, he advised. Make the contact dependable, brief, and transparent. And archive it.

He injects some theory on cognitive development: 1. practice and emotion are associated with learning, 2. There are six levels of cognitive skill: Remembering, Understanding, Applying, Analyzing, Evaluating, and Creating (based on Bloom's taxonomy), 3. There are three categories of thinking: critical, creative, and practical. 4. The developing mind moves through stages: everything the teacher says is true, then every opinion is equally valid, and finally some conclusions are better than others. It's not a book on the human mind, but this background is useful for the discussion and it does suggest that his methods may be valuable.

The writing style is very conversational.  I like his analogies and summary thoughts, I've plucked a few quotes to demonstrate his wit and insight:

"Universities have been like gas stations; we are all pretty similar but we survive because we have a local advantage and have not had much competition." 283

"While tenure has done its job by protecting research agendas, it has not fostered innovation in teaching, which we need now if we are to prosper." 284

"If your institution has a campus then you're a little like Borders. You might want to get into the online book sales business, but Amazon is already there and has lower overhead." 234
"If employers start not only valuing ... certifications but also requiring them, the traditional degree could be in trouble." 258

"Learning requires more than just new facts; it is motivated by forcing students to confront, analyze and articulate compelling discrepancies that require change in the way they believe." 80

"College teachers in general have no formal preparation for teaching, so they teach as they were taught, going back in an unbroken chain to the founding of Bologna, Paris, and Oxford universities in the 11th and 12th centuries." 20-21

Yet, in his zeal he probably makes some overstatements: "Listening to a lecture and taking notes is no longer an important skill." (127) "We need to make college more like a video game." (71) "It is hard to argue that doing well on closed-book tests prepares you for anything except more testing." (183) He even recommends not wasting time commenting on graded projects, because once students see their grade they won't read the comments anyway. And generally speaking, he doesn't seem to care much for reading at all. He's referring to podcasts when he writes "When classroom discussions or activities make it clear that success occurs only by doing the preparatory activity, students prepare." But why not just require students to read the textbook, like we used to do? His answer seems to be it's futile, they will not. But why would they watch the podcasts? And why can't  or maybe better, why shouldn't we require reading?  Is it no longer necessary?

He lost a point for those excesses, and for not having a better editor: It's rambling and often disorganized, many passages are repetitive and then there's the exaggeration. Even so, it's a valuable popular treatment of an important effort more universities are talking about, thinking about, and starting to do.

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