Sitting near a Delta gate at ATL on Friday, October 2nd at around 5pm, I heard the gate agent tell the huddled masses that the flight was full. The man needed one volunteer to postpone their flight to New Orleans to Saturday at 8am. The incentive: $500 in Delta-bucks. No one budged. The offer was increased to $700 and someone (not me) finally approached the podium. I was unable to accept either offer. I needed to check in to the New Orleans Downtown Marriot and get a good night’s sleep. I was representing Nichols College this weekend at the Teaching Professor Technology Conference!
My first impression of New Orleans was that there was a WOW Café in the airport! It must be the case that Nichols College’s cuisine is sweeping the nation. After a long shuttle ride and a night of sleep I found myself sitting among faculty and technologists from other institutions of higher learning. The keynote talk for the first day was delivered by Ollie Dreon from Millersville University. The topic was relevant to the current movement at Nichols College to facilitate active learning. This movement is evidenced in the classrooms in the New Academic Building that allow faculty to create what Ollie referred to as a “migrating focal point” in class.
Ollie referenced a study in which Psychology professors taught two sections of the same introductory course. One class was delivered in a lecture format. The other was taught in an active learning setting. At the end of the semester they assessed both sections’ learning as well as their enjoyment. They found that the students performed better in the active learning section but preferred the lecture format. There was much discussion among the crowd about why this was the case. It seems to me that active learning is hard work. It is hard work for the instructor to prepare innovative exercises for class AND port the lecture so that it may be consumed by students outside of class. It is also hard work for a student to come to each class and engage with the professor and her classmates. Active learning is difficult for all parties involved… but it works.
I attended several other interesting sessions throughout the weekend. My two favorites were:
Fat Points and Game Mechanics: When the Points Don’t Matter, They Really Do – Thomas Heinzen, William Paterson University
This session was facilitated by a Psychology professor that was interested in applying the principles of game design to experiences within higher education. He contends that game play is an inclusive instinct within all humans. He spoke of “learning leaving a residue.” I had the thought at the time that maybe this could soften the edge of the strain caused by active learning.
Thomas defined play as the voluntary expenditure of exuberant energy in aimless activities and overcoming unnecessary obstacles. In higher education, faculty often asks students to overcome obstacles (their necessity would no doubt make for a lively debate). Can we design them in such a way that encourages students to approach them with the same exuberance as a willing player approaches a game? Once again, I think that this is a call to action for us instructors to work to design better games, I mean courses.
Experiential Learning Lessons from Design Education – Lora Kim and Tes Zakrzewski, Wentworth Institute of Technology
I was very excited to attend this talk. Experiential learning is something that we stress at Nichols College. I was curious to see how it was being implemented at one of our neighbor institutions. Lora and Tes focused on Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle.
They referred to Svinicki and Dixon’s 1987 article on active student learning. This inspired me to think about how I could create an experience for my students that could trigger this cycle. Weeks later in Statistics, we experimented with a large batch of scratch off lottery tickets and reflected on our experience before reconciling the results with the cold hard truth of mathematical expectation.
Tes relayed an example that a math professor had used at their institution. He had students push wooden boards (long ways) down into kitchen scales until they bowed. They repeated this for different sized boards, recording the weights that the scale showed at the moment the boards bowed. This triggered a reflection on the relation between length and pressure. Then they mathed it up with all of the trimmings: equations, functions and of course, derivatives.
I hated to do it but I had to rush out of Lora and Tes’ session to present my own, Improving Mathematics Course Delivery using iPad, Air Sketch and Explain Everything. The presentation was scheduled to coincide with check out time from the hotel on the final day of the conference. My fears of an empty room were not realized however as I drew a respectable crowd. I discussed how I had come across the iPad application Air Sketch and had begun using it to speed up my lecturing. Over time I have come to use Air Sketch a tool to engage my class in active learning and lecture less. The educators who came to my session had lots of questions about how I used Air Sketch in class. I explained that I ask my students to work on problems together and then after wandering around the room encouraging and helping for a spell I ask them to volunteer their solutions.
Last year I used the iPad to flip lectures for an upper level class by recording screencasts (using the app Explain Everything) and asking my students to watch them as homework before our next meeting. In class I would ask the students to work out the technical details of the major proof from the online lecture and share these details with one another using the iPad. This “pincer” approach was a substitute for me simply presenting the proof once in class. I believe that this approach allows my students to interact with the material more deeply than I was able to when I sat in their seats 15 years ago. My major takeaway from my weekend in New Orleans is that educators are all working to create more innovative learning experiences for their students. Everyone agrees that we should be engaging our students in active and experiential learning on a regular basis. Creating these experiences is difficult work for instructors and students alike. I believe that this work will be rewarded in deep learning that will last a lifetime.