Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The "no textbook" decision

Let me make it clear from the outset that I like textbooks. I've kept many of the texts I used during my graduate school days, along with a sizable number of more recent acquisitions. At their best, textbooks provide research, case studies, insights from business heavy hitters (remember, this is a business school), and visually enticing diagrams, photographs, and charts. How could anyone not love a well-written textbook?

Well, today's students, mostly. They not only prefer to read and write in shorter bursts (think text messages and tweets), they also want to be able to find the absolute latest information available. I've been surprised--pleasantly and on more than one occasion--how quickly students can and do investigate a casual reference I've made to some topic...often before the end of the day and quite frequently before the end of that class period.

Kansas State University's Digital Ethnography Project conducted a survey of 200 students and found:
  • They complete 49% of the readings assigned to them.
  • They buy textbooks that are never opened.
  • The reading ratio of books to web pages is 8:2300.
And we (meaning academics) have inadvertently contributed to the decline in textbook appreciation. Many instructors cover the textbook material so thoroughly in lectures that reading the text is really unnecessary; therefore, the cost of the textbook is seen as wasted money. I prefer that reading occur before students come to class (quaint, I know) and have varying levels of success with reinforcing that behavior. Still, it's a slog, at best.

The other way we've contributed to the downfall of the textbook is by taking steps to minimize student cost. In this particular course, we worked with the publisher to develop a custom text of only the required chapters, supplemented by relevant articles. The unintended consequence is a black-and-white version of the text, which significantly decreases the visual appeal. In fact, I use the original textbook simply because it's more enjoyable to read.

So, what will replace the text? A combination of classic articles (such as Michael Porter's "What is Strategy?"), videos used in the current course, student-driven research (within broad guidelines), and a requirement that students be able to understand and explain what they find. And I am knee-deep in the nuts and bolts of the details required to guide this process toward the learning objectives for the course.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Textbooks, grades, and learning, oh my

When I logged on to post this blog today, I found a blog link sent by a student (who took a class with me and works in my department). In the Comments section, there's a professional and respectful exchange about grading--and challenging students to strive for excellence.

I've had this same discussion with a trusted colleague or two over lunch and I'm pleased that students want to participate in the dialog. Grading is one of the hardest parts of teaching, at least for me, especially when seeking a balance between individual excellence and the ability to collaborate.

And now the topic I intended for today: The Textbook Decision. I've opted not to use one for the fall semester. I've learned more than a few things from my students, including the fact that they generally don't read their textbooks and resent having to pay for something they don't use. It's a bit circular. Next post, I'll explain what I mean and why I've chosen to forgo requiring a textbook.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The crunch time cometh

Spending time with the various Google applications has kept me busy (who knew there were so many blogs to follow and sites to bookmark?), as I try to get a better understanding of how to modify some portions of the course and create others. Having technology tools readily available in the room is offering so many options; it's easy to become overwhelmed.

For the next 3-4 weeks, the focus will be revamping existing course plans and completing the new ones. The course is designed to be 50% lecture (the revamping) and 50% business simulation (the part we will be replacing with new content). When I've taught the course, I've made the lecture portion as interactive as possible; the limiting factors were the room configuration and the lack of computers, so this seems less daunting. The business simulation portion does not have a readily available equivalent and seriously daunts.

For now, the plan is to use Blackboard (which is already widely used here) for grading and administering exams. The rest is Google, with docs, reader, blogger, and bookmarks as starting points.

Monday, July 13, 2009

And the technology, too

The Steelcase Learning Lab is the model for our beta classroom. The technology tools and infrastructure are the least of my concerns, however, as there are very capable people managing that project. What concerns me is how to use what's being provided.

I've not been an early adopter of any technology. Late to cell phones and computers, I do not use the full functionality of any technology; I use only what seems effective or efficient...or what I'm required (by someone else, of course) to use. Were I to be completely honest, I'd admit that the Learning Lab technology is more than a little intimidating. Using technology well is impressive; using it poorly (especially in the presence of Digital Natives) does not inspire confidence in either the user or the observer(s). I can learn the technology; in fact, I'll be provided the "opportunity" within the next two weeks. And it will remind me how it feels to be a novice. So why would I do this?

It's easy to teach students who love to read, who love to write, who love learning for the sake of learning...the ones we all want to be and the ones we all want to teach. But even when we find those near-perfect students, few of us have the luxury of esoteric discourse ranging from neural networks to computer networks, with a sidebar about The New York Times book review of Jonah Lehrer's Proust was a Neuroscientist (which I thoroughly enjoyed, by the way). I teach undergraduate business students at a state-funded university, students who are being recruited and hired for a wide range of abilities. I don't get to choose which ones I teach, I have very little time with them, and I need to reach them as quickly and as effectively as possible. Will the technology help? Teaching well matters enough for me to take the risk. And the willingness to learn--which is what we expect of our students-- does seem to require some willingness to risk.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

A (class)room of their own

When Virgina Woolf wrote A Room of One's Own in 1929, there were far fewer female writers than in 2009. The change, Woolf believed, would require that women have a place where it was acceptable for them to write (thus, their room) and the resources or support to pursue their craft. One of the hallmarks of a good writer, I believe, is a premise that stands the test of time; Woolf''s has.

On Friday, I saw the first steps to create a classroom where students will have a physical space and the technology tools to allow them to work in groups during class, using technology to research, collaborate, write, and learn. The first step is reconfiguring the tables, creating spaces that define working groups. The next steps will be replacing the existing chairs with swivel chairs (so that every part of the classroom becomes a potential focal point for learning) and installing the new technology tools (details in a subsequent post). When completed, we'll have a beta lab-classroom combination that allows students and instructors to develop, review, and/or edit learning content in real time. The serendipitous collaboration of the technology group (led by the intrepid Sandy) and the curriculum committee (who requested a pilot course) are illustrative of how luck favors the prepared.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Drinking from a fire hose

I'm trying to absorb as much as possible about how other educators are using technology (including the most common mistakes, mostly so I can avoid them). One intriguing use is to encourage research and writing about the connections among the research sites. I've been seeking ways to improve writing skills, as well as to facilitate problem-solving and analysis-synthesis. There are worthy models; the challenge is knowing what to incorporate...and how. My work over the next few weeks is reviewing course objectives and content (both existing and proposed) in order to take a first pass at how to use technology in a thoughtful way. I've been pleasantly surprise to find so many digital colleagues.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

How this particular journey began

After years of working in corporate settings (where I always "found" myself in a teaching role), I'm teaching undergraduate business students about strategy. When asked if I would teach a pilot course with an honors class, I didn't hesitate for a minute to say "sure." Only afterward did I begin to question what it would take to modify-develop-teach an existing 6-hour course and (1) achieve the course objectives (it's a core course taught by several qualified people; we all teach to the same objectives), (2) prepare students for the challenges of collaborative work, (3) work with (rather than against) the digital-electronic-technology lifestyle of today's students, and (4) practice what I preach.

But the more I've explored the possibilities, the more enthusiastic I've become. There are so many ways to incorporate collaboration, problem-solving, research (not the way we did it when I was in school...card catalogues), and technology—more to offer than time to offer it. And I’m intrigued by the opportunities to bring business knowledge and experience to our students via online collaboration with people in various businesses across the country…or the world.

So, part of the learning-teaching component (for me) is experiencing the power of online collaboration, problem-solving and research. Since a web log (blog) is one component of the pilot course, I'll be using this blog to chronicle how I started this journey, where it takes me, the milestones (and missteps), and, eventually, feedback from the 30+ students who'll be joining me in August.

Input from my teaching peers is welcome. I'll continue to need assistance from the instructional design and technology groups (both of whom are awesome, by the way). I would appreciate some old-fashioned keep-me-honest input from colleagues who are doing the work (in various settings) for which we are preparing students. We're all learning; we're all teaching.