Saturday, October 31, 2015

From Technology to No Technology

Technology has slowly been entering into multiple aspects of teaching and learning. Classrooms are one such space where people are trying to integrate technology in various ways. Colleges are pushing for the use of technology in classrooms. For example, in 2007, the College of Engineering at Virginia Tech made it mandatory for each incoming freshman to own a tablet-PC. The purpose behind this move was to change the way engineering classes are instructed at the university. However, at the other end, there are professors at various universities who are doing away with the use of electronic gadgets in classrooms. Tal Gross who teaches at Columbia University and Clay Shirky who teaches at New York University recently banned the use of technology in their classrooms.

Tal Gross, who teaches public health at Columbia University recently banned the use of laptops in his classes. He argues when students take notes using laptops in class, given their fast typing abilities, they tend to copy down almost everything that is said in the class. As a result, the classroom does not remain a place for dialogue and conversation anymore, rather it becomes an “exercise in dictation.”

Gross supports his decision by citing a research study conducted by Pam Mueller at Princeton University and Daniel Oppenheimer at UCLA in which 67 undergraduates were asked to watch a video lecture. Half of them were randomly assigned to take notes using pen and paper while the other half was asked to take notes using a laptop while watching the video. After that, the students were asked to take an exam. It was found that the students who took notes using pen and paper did much better than the ones who took notes using laptop on conceptual questions.

A few months before Gross pulled the plug, Clay Shirky, a social media professor at New York University, banned the use oftechnology in his classrooms. Shirky observed that distractions due to electronic devices grew over the years in his classes. Moreover, he notes whenever he asks his students to shut down their electronic devices, "the conversation brightens, and more recently, there is a sense of relief from many of the students."

Shirky’s move to ask students to shut down electronic gadgets was aimed to prevent them from multi-tasking and engage with social media. He reasons multi-tasking is bad for high quality cognitive work and cites a study from Stanford that suggests heavy multi-taskers are not good at choosing a task to concentrate on. He further adds “the problem is especially acute with social media, because on top of the general incentive for any service to be verbose about its value, social information is immediately and emotionally engaging. Both the form and the content of a Facebook update are almost irresistibly distracting, especially compared with the hard slog of coursework.”

Finally, Shirky cites another study that suggests participants who were multitasking on a laptop during a lecture had lower scores on a test as compared to those who did not. In addition to that, participants who were in direct view of another participant who was multitasking scored lower than those who were not. This suggests laptop multitasking distracts not only the one who is doing it but also the one who is sitting nearby and can see someone multitasking.

The above stories suggest technology is not always beneficial for students in a classroom. Hence, we, as educators, must engage in enough deliberation before asking students to use technology and electronic gadgets in classrooms.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Training PhD students about responsible conduct of research: Whose responsibility is it?

It is needless to emphasize the importance of maintaining ethical standards while conducting research. However, for engaging in ethical research practices, one needs to learn about the ethical standards. Most of the researchers start learning about conducting research during their PhDs. This means that they should start learning about ethical and responsible conduct of research as PhD students. But the bigger question remains: who teaches PhD students about responsible conduct of research? Is it the faculty who serve as mentors or advisors or supervisors to the student, or is it the university or the institution?

Titus and Ballou [1] conducted a quantitative study to figure out how faculty (mentors or advisors or supervisors) work with PhD students to educate them about research standards, and who (the institution or the faculty) they think is responsible for teaching PhD students about responsible conduct of research. For this study, Titus and Ballou selected 10000 R01 researchers who had NIH grants during 2005 and 2006, and had the primary responsibility of overseeing a doctoral student in the last five years. They surveyed the selected researchers using a web-administered questionnaire between October 2008 and March 2009 to answer their research questions.

In their study, Titus and Ballou found that more than half of the faculty did not 1) teach the doctoral students how to write grant proposals, 2) co-author a research paper with the student being the first author, 3) prepare an IRB or IUCAC protocol with students, and 4) provide data management guidelines to students. 30% of the faculty reported that either they did not have any guideline from the institution on their responsibilities for working with PhD students or they could not remember if any guideline was provided. More than 70% of the faculty believed it was their responsibility to 1) set standards for data collection, 2) provide training for data management, 3) provide policy on authorship, and 4) provide financial support to students. However, more than half of them believed that it was institute’s responsibility to 1) provide training in responsible research behavior, 2) provide training about IRB or IACUC regulations, 3) provide training in identifying research misconduct, and 4) managing cases of research misconduct. Less than 30% faculty reported that they had been trained to advise or mentor doctoral students and develop research skills in students.

The findings of the above study provide important implications for research institutions to train the faculty to work with doctoral students. At the same time, there should be a clear delineation of responsibility between faculty and institution for developing ethical and responsible research behavior in PhD students. Training PhD students about responsible conduct of research is an important part of their development as PhD students and both institution and faculty should hold hands to achieve this goal.

[1] Titus, S. L., & Ballou, J. M. (2013). Ensuring PhD Development of Responsible Conduct of Research Behaviors: Who’s Responsible? Science and Engineering Ethics, 20(1), 221–235.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Learning Partnerships Model: The Future of University

With rising costs of higher education, more and more students are getting attracted to Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). MOOCs are cheaper and provide almost the same content knowledge to students as they would get from a course taught in a college classroom. Besides cheaper education, MOOCs also help students get past the barriers of time synchronization and co-location. While being enrolled in a MOOC class, a student does not need to be present at a fixed location during a fixed time. They can access the course content any time and from any location according to their convenience. This is why MOOCs are becoming more popular each day to the extent that some universities ask their on-campus students to take online courses. I myself have taken a 3-credit graduate level online course at Virginia Tech as the professor who teaches the course (or rather prepares the online material and coordinates its delivery) is not present on the main campus of the university.

If a student can learn the same content at cheaper price and with more convenience, it is reasonable to argue that their inclination to attend a physical university will go down. In such a case, the reasons for which a student might want to attend a university would change in future. Universities will have to move beyond the information-transfer model to something which will add value to students, and something which cannot be learned through MOOCs.

In the book Learning Partnerships: Theory and Models of Practice to Educate for Self-authorship (edited by Baxter Magolda and King), Marcia B Baxter Magolda notes the 21st century college education should help students develop systemic thinking, enable them to critically analyze the knowledge claims made by the authority instead of merely accepting it, help them construct their own knowledge and beliefs, and prepare them to be open to new possibilities. These skills will help students grow into “effective citizens” who can take ethical actions for the good of not just the individual but the society as a whole. In order to achieve the goal of developing students into effective citizens, Baxter Magolda suggests universities should create learning environments that help students attain three learning outcomes:  cognitive maturity, integrated identity, and mature relationships. Cognitive maturity refers to the ability to take mature and reflective decisions while problem solving. Integrated identity refers to the ability to make independent decisions, understand one’s own culture and backgrounds, and choose one’s goals and values. Mature relationship is linked with respecting others’ beliefs and identities, and integrating the diverse perspective brought by others with one’s own. Figure 1 depicts an integrated model of the three learning outcomes which universities should help students attain.

Figure 1.  An integrated model of university/college learning outcomes [1]

Baxter Magolda further suggests that these learning outcomes can be attained by employing the learning partnerships model (as shown in Figure 2) in the universities. A learning environment based on the learning partnerships model conveys knowledge as complex and socially constructed and situates learning in learner’s experiences. Depicting knowledge as complex validates learner’s capacity to learn. Situating learning in learner’s experiences conveys the idea that self is vital for knowledge construction. Such a learning environment helps students develop cognitive maturity and integrated identity. Finally, in order to help students develop mature relationships, the learning environment portrays authority and expertise as shared, and learning as mutually constructing meaning.

Figure 2. The learning partnerships model [2]

For universities to become the “centers for learning” in the true sense of the terms, I think, they need to move toward creating a learning environment based on the learning partnerships model. Such a learning environment will produce graduates who not only have the required knowledge to do a job but also are able to make ethical decisions for the good of humankind while executing the job.

[1] Baxter Magolda, M. B. (2004). Self-authorship as the common goal of 21st-century education. In M. B. B. Magolda & P. M. King (Eds.), Learning partnerships: Theory and models of practice to educate for self-authorship (pp. 1–35). Stylus Publishing, LLC.
[2] Baxter Magolda, M. B. (2004). Learning partnerships model. In M. B. B. Magolda & P. M. King (Eds.), Learning partnerships: Theory and models of practice to educate for self-authorship (pp. 37–62). Stylus Publishing, LLC.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Critical Pedagogy in Engineering Classroom

Critical pedagogy is the education movement aimed developing students into socially and politically aware individuals, helping them recognize authoritarian tendencies, empowering them to act against injustice, and employing democratic and inclusive classroom practices. The term “critical pedagogy” has been used by educators to refer to a broad range of pedagogies that employ critical theory, feminist theory, queer theory, anti-racist theory, multicultural education, and inclusive pedagogies. In this post, I will discuss some of the critical pedagogy practices employed by Dr. Donna Riley (currently a professor at Virginia Tech) while teaching a class called “Engineering Thermodynamics” as Smit College, an all women college, during Spring and Fall semesters of 2002. It should be noted that Riley uses liberative pedagogy as an inclusive term for critical pedagogy, feminist pedagogy, and radical pedagogy. Some of the classroom practices employed by Riley included:

Connecting learning to students’ experiences. Students learn the most from examples which they can relate to, based on their social and cultural backgrounds. Hence, Riley used a wide variety of thermodynamic systems in class as examples. Also, the textbook for the class was chosen such that it contained a wide variety of examples of thermodynamic systems.

Democratic classroom practices. Students were assigned teaching roles to teach parts of the course to the entire class. They were not only asked to develop modules to teach the class but also encouraged to relate them to their own lives. Also, the seating arrangement reflected the democratic classroom practices. Instead of sitting in rows facing the instructor, students were asked to sit in circles with each student facing and talking to the entire class instead of just the instructor.

Taking responsibility for one’s own learning. Students were required to take responsibility for their learning in that they were asked to do metacognitive reflections on what was working or not working for them in the class. They were also asked to do assignments in which they reflected on their learning of various aspects of the course.

Ethics discussions. In order for students to be develop as ethically responsible individuals, they need to learn the impact which an engineer’s work has on the society. To develop such an ethical awareness, Riley and her class watched and critiqued videos on “energy in society”, critiqued the textbook used for the class by analyzing the aspects (e.g. alternate energy, environmental applications of thermodynamics, energy system in developing countries) which were missing from the textbook. Also, students were assigned ethics problems to reflect on.

Breaking the Western hegemony. In order to decenter the male hegemony of the Western civilization, Riley discussed examples of thermodynamic inventions done by non-Western and non-male inventors. Also, some of the assignments required students to make interracial and intercultural connections in thermodynamics.

Normalizing mistakes. By normalizing mistakes in the process of learning, Riley fostered a classroom environment in which students were comfortable attempting problems (sometimes even on the black board) in class and learning from their mistakes. Another strategy used by her for normalizing mistakes was acknowledging when she herself did not know something.

Discussion of history and philosophy. Riley discussed the history and philosophy of the development of thermodynamic laws to demonstrate to the students that the process of discovery does not lead one to an absolute truth. Instead, making mistakes is acceptable in the process of discovery. Students were also required to reflect on how the knowledge of history and philosophy of thermodynamics helped their learning.

Assessment techniques. The assessment of students put a greater emphasis on participation. Moreover, a flexible grading system was adopted. Students were asked to work in pairs on some exams. In the second offering of the course, problems were given to the students only as a learning exercise and not as an assessment tool. Moreover, continual course feedback was taken from students to improve their learning experience.

One of the critiques of critical pedagogy is that it does not provide specific classroom practices. It just suggests that teaching and learning should be contextual and aim at raising critical awareness among students. A lot of times educators do not know how to apply critical pedagogy in their classes, especially in hard and applied sciences, due to a lack of knowledge about how to apply it. I hope the practices noted above can be adopted to and adapted for any classroom and any discipline.

P.S. The complete paper in which Riley discusses her experiences of applying liberative pedagogy in her classes can be found from: Riley, D. (2003). Employing liberative pedagogies in engineering education. Journal of Women and Minorities in Science and Engineering, 9(2), 137–158.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

What should students pursue, interest or money?

I was attending the 47th North American Power Symposium during 4-6 October in Charlotte, North Carolina when I had this interesting conversation with a professor from another university. I told the professor that I did my Masters in Electrical Engineering and then I moved to Engineering Education to pursue my PhD. The first reaction which the professor had was in form of a comment in which they told me that it will not be very beneficial for me in terms of the salary which I will earn after graduating from my degree program. I think the assumption which the professor made here was that a graduate with an education degree will earn less than the one with an electrical engineering degree.

There might be some truth in what the professor said (although when I compared the salaries of professors from Engineering Education and Electrical & Computer Engineering departments at Virginia Tech, I did not find much difference between them; but for now, let us go ahead with the assumption that electrical engineering professors earn more than their counterparts in engineering education). It might be difficult for me to compete with electrical engineering graduates in terms of the salary which I will earn after my graduation, but is that all I want from my education? A big fat salary? Or does it have to be more? Is there a bigger purpose for me and for others that leads us to pursue higher education?

If I look at the current narrative about the higher education, it seems like students see it as an investment in terms of time and money and the expectation is that this investment will pay off once they graduate from the university. And this is why a lot of their time and energy is focused on taking classes or engaging in activities that help them secure a high-paying job. This is not to say that all students look at higher education only as a means to get a high-paying job but the number of students who do so is significant. And this is very evident in my own discipline, engineering. In fact, I have myself fallen into the trap of taking classes and engaging in activities that, I thought, would eventually help me get a high-paying job.

I am not against having a desire for a high-paying job. In fact, with the rising costs of higher education, one needs to ensure that one has a well-paying job by the time they graduate so that they can payback their student loans. Issues arise when people start constructing their academic lives around money and jobs; and ignore various avenues of learning which are essential for personal growth and development into a responsible citizen. Moreover, there are other issues with focusing one’s higher education entirely on getting high-paying jobs. The economic landscape is changing rapidly and it is possible that the sectors which are high-paying now will no longer be high-paying a few years later and vice versa. So, if students pursue money while they are in college, there is no guarantee that they will succeed in that pursuit as there might not be many high-paying jobs in their fields few years down the line. Moreover, the charm of money fades away after some time and if one does not find their work interesting and satisfying, one might encounter dissatisfaction with their career and life.

In my opinion, students should follow their interests while they are pursuing higher education and try to get into careers they love. Even if they do not make a lot of money as compared to those who pursued money, they will still love what they do and hence live meaningful lives. And when the going gets tough, doing what they love will keep them going.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Why is "Behave like a Roman while in Rome" attitude problematic?

A couple of weeks ago, I reached my Contemporary Pedagogy class ten minutes before the class start-time and started charting with one of my classmates who had also arrived almost the same time I had. Somehow, the conversation started drifting toward writing and I argued that the professors (at Virginia Tech or any educational institution) should be cognizant of the fact that different cultures have different writing styles. For example Asian cultures follow a circular writing pattern and on the other hand, the dominant writing style in the USA is linear. Hence, when the professors are evaluating a student’s work, especially an international student or even a domestic student from a different cultural setting than their own, they should be at least cognizant, if not considerate, of the student’s culture and look at their writing with the knowledge of student’s cultural background in mind. This is important because in the absence of knowledge of variation in writing style among cultures, the professor may judge student’s writing and hence their level of understanding of the subject matter poorly in case there is a writing style mismatch between the professor and the student.

While I was making this argument, another classmate who belongs to the majority group (white male) jumped in to the conversation and presented a counter argument by saying “Behave like a Roman while in Rome.” I find this attitude of the white guy very non-inclusive and even oppressive. However, this is not to say that he was intentionally trying to be non-inclusive or oppressive while making his comment. It is very much possible that he was unaware of his own privileges and the oppressive nature of his comment. And my aim for writing this blog post is not to point fingers at anyone. It is just to express my own feelings and if that classmate of mine reads this post, it is to educate him and many others who might be unaware of their privileges and the non-inclusive structure of the university and education system.

In order to understand why the comment made by my while male classmate non-inclusive and oppressive in the context of higher education in the US, we will have to go to the history of higher education in the country. The first colleges and universities in the country were set up to educate ministers or to provide education so that the graduates could take up public employment in Church and Civil State. The universities were accessible only to the dominant majority i.e. the white men. It was not until the middle of the nineteenth century that females and other racial minorities were given access to college education in the country.

In such a case where the universities were only open for the white males and were run by them, it is easy to understand that the education system was structured according to what the white males deemed appropriate. In other words, the university structure was designed in a way which was suitable for the white males. And the same argument can be made for the accepted behavioral styles including writing styles in the university and the academia. The styles of behavior and academic writing which seemed appropriate to white males were adopted and others were deemed inappropriate. While the universities opened for females and other racial minorities almost 150 years ago, I argue that on a structural level, universities have made little changes to accepting what is appropriate and acceptable; and what is not. Thus, the structures which govern the universities are still very “white male-ish” in nature. And hence, the university structures are not very inclusive of minorities.

How does this non-inclusive structure lead to oppression? Universities expect all the students to follow the rules, guidelines and structures and adapt to those. For a minority student who was taught a different set of behavioral patterns and social etiquette in their cultural setting, the guidelines which the universities ask them to follow might be strange and unfamiliar. Thus, what universities are asking them to do is to forgo what behavioral styles they learned as appropriate in their cultural settings and follow the behavioral styles which the universities espouse i.e. the style favored by the dominant group. When students try to adapt to the new set of behavioral patterns as asked of them by the universities, they face disconnect with their own cultural heritage and hence suffer isolation. They are neither able to identify with what they learned at home about appropriate conduct and behavior nor they fully learn the new style of behavior. And a lot of times, this difference in the behavioral styles is seen as an inability to learn. This perpetuates further oppression and segregation of the minority students.

I know it is not easy for any professor to learn about all the cultural styles whether it is related to writing or behavior. However, only by being cognizant of the fact that differences exist one can move a step forward in creating an inclusive learning environment. This is how a professor can start putting in efforts to understand where students are coming from and what values they bring to the classroom. This, instead of asking students to “behave like Romans while in Rome,” will create an inclusive learning environment in universities.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Inclusive Classroom Lessons from the Movie Freedom Writers

(A still from the movie Freedom Writers. Image Source:

In my Education and Anthropology class last Thursday, we watched the movie Freedom Writers. I am a movie buff (In fact, based on my innumerous references to movies in class while teaching, last week one of my students, Nicholas, asked me, “Ashish, are you the movie guy?”) but very few movies make me think as deeply as this one did. Based on a real-life story, the movie tells the tale of a high school in Long Beach, California. Erin Gruwell joins the school as the new English teacher. She is given the responsibility to teach English to “at risk” students who come from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds and most of them have a long history of racial and gang violence. They do not see a future for themselves and do not see how school is helping them in any way. Gruwell, a first time teacher, works her way through the administrative struggles to ignite her students’ passion for learning and helps them envision a future for themselves. How does she do it? Through inclusive pedagogy! She teaches us the following four important lessons about creating inclusive classrooms:

Validate students’ capacity to learn: The first and foremost requirement of making a classroom inclusive of students’ needs is to have enough trust in the students that they can learn and succeed. We fail the students a lot before they encounter actual failure if we do not lay our trust in their abilities. When the entire school treated her students as a burden, Erin believed in her students’ abilities and kept putting in efforts to provide new learning experiences to her students. She even took up two part-time jobs after her regular job so that she could buy books for her students and take them to museum trips.

Listen and understand: To make the teaching inclusive, the teacher needs to listen to students’ needs and understand their needs by being cognizant of the sociocultural backgrounds they come from. For assignments, Erin Gruwell asked students to tell their own stories through an anonymous journal. These stories not only helped Erin to know her students better but also increased her students’ confidence as they started believing that their own stories are as important as any other story and others need to know their stories.

Have instructional materials relevant to one’s background: Students, in any classroom, come from diverse backgrounds and the same educational material might not cater to the needs of all the students. Erin Gwen soon realized that her students did not see value in learning about Homer and his works. Hence, she changed the texts to the ones about the lives of teenagers in times of violence and war so that her students could relate their own experiences with the texts they were reading.

Bring in your own personal identity to relate to students: While a teacher needs to have deep sympathy with their students’ oppressed histories, they also need to empathize with the students to relate with them on a higher level. And this empathy can only be evoked by the teacher if they bring their own personal identity and history to classrooms and relate others’ intense experiences with their own culture and identity. Erin Gruwell does that almost perfectly when she brings her own Jewish identity and the history of Jewish oppression to relate it with her students’ identities and histories of oppression and violence.

In Erin’s case, most of her students had a history of oppression and violence and all of there were identified as “at risk” students. Students in our classroom might not fall into those categories. However, we can still make the classroom more inclusive of students by understating their identities and aspirations. As, educators we need to understand the classroom context and devise our instruction accordingly. And that way, we can move toward "inclusive classrooms" in true sense of the terms.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Open Access: A Social Justice Approach

In the present system of publication of research articles, most of the publishers charge some money from the users to access research papers. While it is understandable that publishers need money to print a paper copy of any journal article and make it available to the users, charging users to access online copies of journal articles is unjustified. Publishers do not have to pay any money to those involved in the process of publishing. Researchers conduct research using research funds which come from the government or private funding agencies. Peer-review of journals before publishing is done by academics as part of their “service” to the discipline. In such a case, asking people to pay to access online copies of research articles is unreasonable. And to add to it, the price to access journals has increased exponentially over the past three decades. Such a system of publication promotes and reinforces the exclusionary tendency of the academia and is ethically unfair.

By asking students and researchers to pay to access the research work done by other researchers, the current system of publication restricts those who cannot afford to pay to access research papers from learning about the research work being done by researchers. This reinforces the exclusionary tendency of the academy and promotes elitism. In such a system, people who have sufficient amount of money can pay to access the latest research and build on it. However, people who cannot do have such an access due to monetary constraints are not even aware of the research being done by researchers. As a result, they are systematically excluded from accessing and contributing to the research being done in a particular field.

Besides being accessible to limited number of people, this system of publication is ethically unfair to the general public. A lot of research is funded by the government in the form of research grants. This money comes from the taxpayers. Asking the public to pay again to access the research work which was done with taxpayers’ money (in other words, their money) is asking them to pay twice for the same thing.

In order to make research more accessible to people, the academy should move toward “open access.” As the name suggests, open access refers to the unrestricted access of journal papers and their unrestricted use to advance research and Scholarship. In a system of open access, researchers will upload their work on an online database and this database will be made available to anyone who wants to access and build on the research done by other people. This system will be more inclusive of people who cannot afford to purchase research papers and hence are denied access to the latest research being done in any field.