I Multitask, Not

Most of the time I am reading through articles and blogs, I am learning something new. Then there are times when I can relate to an article. However, there are rare times, when the article says exactly the same thing I wanted to share for so long. It is so good to read them and realize that your feelings have been expressed somewhere by someone.

I am talking about an article on the myth of multitasking. I was never good at multitasking and that article helped me realized the truth: multitasking does not exist. One can do many tasks switching quickly from one to another but one can only do one task at a time. Of course, the tasks that either have been mastered or that don’t require the same parts of the brain may be performed simultaneously.

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I have been told by many people that they can multitask like listen to me, understand it, reply back and still continue the other work and every time I used to ask them how they can concentrate on them at the same time, I would just hear some arguments, like it is all practice or you just have to train your brain, which were not convincing enough. Well, I have the answer now: they weren’t concentrating. They may be good and quick at switching but they can’t be doing all of it simultaneously. When we think of multitasking, one important thing that we tend to forget, we are humans. A machine may be designed to complete several tasks at the same time with different memory allocations for different tasks but we still have one brain with limited nodes. The brain has limited sections and can only handle a number of tasks. Even our machines hang up at times when they are overworked even if they are designed to perform such tasks. So it makes sense that humans fail at that as our brains are not designed for that.

I am not sure about future and with evolution may be the brain’s design is modified so much that humans can multitask. But right now, if you were trying to write a blog/comment while reading this article (or a couple of others on multitasking: 1, 2), discussing with a friend and listening to the podcast on the myth of multitasking (in case reading was not enough), stop right there. Do them one by one and you will get the most from all of them.

 

Open Pedagogy

After listening to the Teaching in Higher Ed podcast with Dr. Rajiv Jhangiani, I went looking for a definition of ‘open pedagogy.’ Though I wasn’t able to find one clear definition, it seems to me that the goals of open pedagogy are to engage students in their own learning, and to overcome barriers to education (e.g. cost).

In a TEDx talk, David Wiley says “teachers who are the best teachers, are the ones who share the most completely with the most students.” His point here is that educators should be open in sharing their expertise and experiences. After all, you can “share [your expertise]… without losing it.” Education is about openly sharing ideas back and forth, and collaboratively creating new ideas.

The use of open educational resources (OER), including open textbooks and open access journal articles, can substantially reduce costs of students. Students may find themselves asking: “After paying the high price of tuition, why is the information I’m supposed to be getting still behind a $1000 paywall?” Even worse, the additional cost may prohibit some students from being able to afford to enroll.

Traditional textbooks often get updated every 5-or-so years. Often for introductory textbooks, the new edition of a book might simply rearrange the order of the chapters, or add a few new figures– which probably isn’t worth the $150 price tag. I realize the need for updates can vary by field and sub-field. For fields that are rapidly changing, open textbooks may also be advantageous because they can be revised by experts right away instead of waiting five years for a new book to be published.

 

 

5 Rs of OER: retain, redistribute, remix, reuse, reise

Machines are tools and tools can ONLY be tools

Clive Thompson’s reading reminds me of a very interesting question: it is possible that robots or other machines can replace humans as teachers in the classroom in the future? It is not a new question, many fictions, movies, and comics imaged this scene before. Arthur Radebaugh, an American futurist as an illustrator, showed his ideas about the role of machines in the futuristic comic “Closer Than We Think” in 1958 and 1960:

“Tomorrow’s schools will be more crowded; teachers will be correspondingly fewer. Plans for a push-button school have already been proposed by Dr. Simon Ramo, science faculty member at California Institute of Technology. Teaching would be by means of sound movies and mechanical tabulating machines. Pupils would record attendance and answer questions by pushing buttons. Special machines would be “geared” for each individual student so he could advance as rapidly as his abilities warranted. Progress records, also kept by machine, would be periodically reviewed by skilled teachers, and personal help would be available when necessary.”

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Arthur Radebaugh’s push-bottom school (Matt Novak, 2013)

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-jetsons-get-schooled-robot-teachers-in-the-21st-century-classroom-11797516/

“Compressed speech” will help communications: from talking with pilots to teaching reading. Future school children may hear their lessons at twice the rate and understand them better!

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Arthur Radebaugh’s robot teacher (Matt Novak, 2013)

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-jetsons-get-schooled-robot-teachers-in-the-21st-century-classroom-11797516/

In most case, we see machines as tools to improve efficiency, and education is no exception. But what is worrying is that robots and machines don’t have human emotion, they follow specific procedures and standardized tasks. Would it kill the curiosity and creativity of the students? If robots and humans can work together as teachers in the classroom, then where are their boundaries? Although I strongly support the use of machines to help to teach and learning in the classroom, I object to the machine playing a leading role. Teachers are not only teaching knowledge, their personal charm and thoughts can also affect students’ perception of themselves, the world, and the values. Many people dream of becoming a teacher when they are young, is it because they worship their teachers? However, who will worship a robot? Machines are tools, and tools can only be tools.

 

It’s time for institutions to Design/Test/Iterate/Deliver/ Change

Multiple of the aspects of what Dr. Jhangiani discussed go beyond the walls of an institution:

  • Access to digital technology and the digital divide

…and to ideas that run counter to the value proposition of institutions:

  • A time-tested curriculum and faculty
  • Learning on one campus

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The three bullets above are interrelated, but students, professors, parents, and administrators have complex interests that only partially overlap.

Students experience the burden of a textbook (or 3, 4, or 5 textbooks) differently, but we know that some students may struggle to afford a textbook.

We’ve learned that one aspect of a learner-centered syllabus is having student input on the content.

Some professors want to explore new methods, but feel constrained by their institutions. Some parents would not be thrilled to learn that their child “was the guinea pig” in Fall 2018 Intro to Biology. Some administrators are concerned about whether the accreditation for a program will continue if professors are constantly testing new methods and content.

Professors at campuses that are part of consortia (think the Colleges of the Fenway) can leverage (and re-use/re-mix) the resources of the others if they can get buy-in from their administrations, but this can quickly become a bureaucratic albatross around innovation and efficiency.

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It’s time to try new things. We read about the harm that grading may do, then almost everyone still plans to provide traditional grades. We know that we can democratize the information in our classrooms, then we say it’s too hard to not go with the standard textbook. We are not wedded to anything beyond a semester, and maybe not even that long. Let’s try something closer to software design and engineering: design, test, iterate…

I would be ecstatic to build a course with a class. I vividly remember my freshman Biospyschology class, and that was many years ago. One of the most memorable features of the class was the unit on how illicit drug use affected the brain. The class voted on the drug we explored in the unit, and cocaine was selected. I still remember how cocaine affects the synapses. It was my first introduction to developing course content collaboratively, and it left an impression.

We have to start introducing a piece of collaborative design, a collaborator from another institution, a new piece of technology, a different form of assessment, and then keep building. Just as we design, test, and iterate in software we also have a backlog of ideas that we put out in two week sprints. We are not just iterating for weeks on end, but building on a foundation, which is continually being built onto.

agile scrum

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It was not raised during the Critical Open Pedagogy podcast, but institutions of higher learning have far reaching effects on the urban fabric of the communities where they exist and expand. They often bring jobs and stability, but can raise prices and wall off portions of communities. When we think about openness, the openness of facilities is also worth taking into account when many of our leading institutions receive local incentives and state and federal funding.

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While it represents a massive shift to address these factors, it could also provide institutions an opportunity to re-frame the value proposition of the university as a community anchor, a talent ignitor, a leveling force, and the type of dynamic place that tests and retests ideas.

Innovation in pedagogy

The development of communication technology has had a huge impact on all areas of the world. Also, technology has had a great impact on education, and e-learning is a typical example. It is revolutionary to be able to get the education when we want and where we want, even if we are not in a certain place at a specific time. This makes it easier for more people to reach education. Beyond the limits of education, creating explosive demand can be considered a demand-side approach.
Open pedagogy, on the other hand, can be regarded as a supply-side approach that allows for diverse, participatory and living education. The concept of open pedagogy is not really new or imaginative. However, Open Educational Resources (OERs) make this possible. In some respects, the characteristics of OERs indicate the difference in the supply of education. OERs are educational materials that are openly-licensed, usually with Creative Commons licenses, and they are generally characterized by the Rs: they can be reused, retained, redistributed, revised, and remixed. The most important feature is that not only teachers can access educational materials, but all people who can participate in education can access them. If it is the first educational innovation that has enabled anyone to receive education through Internet technology, open education is the second innovation that has made everyone a provider of education. As Rajiv said, everyone can act as a provider.
But change and innovation are accompanied by side effects. Anyone who can participate means that anyone can distort information. From a traditional point of view, the person who supplies education must be qualified. We could easily trust them because educators had to be tested to a certain level of academic personality. However, the current OER is intentionally distorted or alterable by someone. Even if purification is done, I think that it is not easy to cleanse anyone who has an evil intention. It is important for educators to be prepared for side effects so that complete innovation can be achieved.

Technology, Attention and Communication

I found it interesting that this week’s readings were listed under the heading of Attention/multitasking, but the central theme running through all of them seemed to be technology. I think this speaks both to our current obsession with technology and the reality that technology shapes how we live our lives in profound ways. Clive Thomson argued that humans have been using technology to supplement the human thought process since virtually the beginning of time. Meanwhile, Jason Farman argued that technology (especially cell phones) has allowed for new forms of intimate connection even as it has limited face to face communication. On the other hand, Darren Rosenblum argued that technology can distract students and prevent them from interacting when he explained his reasoning for not allowing computers in the classroom. How, as teachers, should we respond to the new opportunities and challenges afforded by technology, particularly in regards to attention?

I think the first step is to recognize the rapid pace of changes in technology. I like to think of myself as a relatively young person, but the environment that I grew up learning in is significantly different than the environment that my students are growing up in. I got my first cell phone when I was a sophomore in high school (this was around 2003) and I could probably count on my hands the number of times that I actually used it. If my friends wanted to talk to me they would call me on my home phone or, more likely, they would just wait to talk to me at school the next day. This really didn’t change all that much early on in college. I always turned my phone off during class and it wouldn’t be uncommon for me to just accidentally leave it off for the rest of the day. As college went on, my phone use became more frequent, since that was my job’s primary way of contacting me. I didn’t send my first text message until years after college (probably around 2012), and then I only started texting because I had a friend that was uncomfortable with talking on the phone because of a stutter. Now, however, that’s how virtually all of my contact with classmates and church groups is conducted. Moreover, phones have become multi-functionary tools, serving as the platform for multiple forms of communication, our gateway to a global web of information, and a veritable Swiss army knife of miscellaneous virtual gadgetry. In high school, if I forgot my cell phone at home my first reaction would be that I hope I don’t get into a wreck today. Now, I would be asking myself how I’m going to get anything accomplished today (especially since Virginia Tech’s Central Authentication System is built under the assumption that everyone has constant access to a cell phone.)

How does all of this relate back to the classroom?

First of all, I think this reflection suggests that we cannot assume that what worked for us as learners thirty, ten, or even five years ago will work for our students today. Moreover, I don’t think that we can assume that what worked one semester will continue to work in the next. Constant change suggests the need for constant flexibility. Perhaps instead of having technology policies in our syllabuses, we should treat those policies as an evolving contract with the class, one that may require renegotiation as the semester progresses. This sort of open-ended policy would allow us to adapt to meet the needs of our class and even to tailor the learning environment to meet specific learning goals on a class by class basis.

I also think that the ever increasing pace of change requires us to constantly refocus ourselves on our core values and goals. When I worked as a sound and lighting technician at the student center, my boss would often ask us what the most important piece of equipment was. The new digital sound boards? The sturdy, reliable microphones? No. The most import equipment was ourselves. Usually this conversation was designed to remind us to always put our personal safety first, but I believe it also held a deeper meaning. Technology is ultimately a tool and a tool is defined by how its user chooses to utilize it. A cutting edge sound board can still sound like crap if the person using it doesn’t know to operate the equipment or doesn’t care enough to try to create the best possible mix. A hammer can enhance our ability to build, but we can also use it to destroy.

In the end, our classrooms our defined not by the technology that is used or the technology that is banned, but by the values that we and are students bring with us. If we want our students to pay attention, then we first need to make sure that we are teaching them things that we genuinely believe are worth learning. More than that, we need to be willing to honestly but passionately articulate why we think these things are important and we also need to listen to students and let their goals influence our classrooms as well. I can’t force my students to care about my class but it’s also utterly unreasonable for me to expect them to if I don’t prove that I care about the class and about them.

Open Pedagogy: Alternatives to paying for books

Let’s face it. Buying textbooks sucks. Especially when a professor claims they are required, but never requires any actual reading, because everything on the test is on the powerpoint slides. Then at the end of the semester, you try to sell the book, only to get maybe $20 for your very expensive paperweight. As professors we have the power to bring down this terrible system by incorporating open pedagogy to our courses (for more on open pedagogy, listen to this great podcast).

Textbooks are one example of a barrier to an open inclusive pedagogy. The added financial burden of purchasing books can prevent low-income students from attending college. If our ideal is to make education available to everyone, what can we do about this?

One way to overcome this barrier is through text rental. I was fortunate in my undergrad at UW-Stevens Point to have this system. It was a university-wide system where students were charged a small fee, (something like $12/credit while I was there) and then they borrowed books from the bookstore and returned them at the end of the semester. This system had a lot of benefits. It was much cheaper than buying books out right, and since it was a fee, financial aid could cover it (thanks Student Loans, I can never repay you). Students were not stuck with textbooks from general education courses that they will never use again, but if they wanted to, they could pay for the book to keep it. Also, since it was across the entire university, it did not rely on individual professors’ willingness to adopt open pedagogy practices. This of course, is not the perfect solution to all pedagogical troubles. There are definitely some downsides. For one, there is still the issue of being able to remix content to fit an individual course. Students were still responsible for buying their own supplementary texts, which could really hurt students taking a lot of literature courses or courses with lab manuals. In about 99.9% of cases, students do not retain the textbooks, because it still cost about $200 to keep a heavily used, pre-highlighted textbook at the end of the semester. I’m sure there were also some restrictions on professors to prevent them from switching textbooks every other semester. Although it’s not perfect, it is still a cool system that you should consider advocating for at your institution.

Another solution is to use open textbooks which can be altered to fit a specific course, and students can keep access to them. For me, open textbooks seemed like the perfect solution to open pedagogy at first. There are some issues here to consider. First, taking open sources and revising and remixing them to suit a course takes a lot of effort on the part of the professor. It could be pretty overwhelming for a professor just beginning to build a new course, and even a veteran professor making the switch to open sources may take several semesters to get everything together. Additionally, for some disciplines like Soil Science, open textbooks are virtually non-existent (If any of you can find an open text for soil science or environmental microbiology, please let me know in the comments). This is particularly frustrating as there is only 1 decent intro Soil Science book that is used and every new edition gets more expensive. Another thing brought up in the podcast is that creating open resource material is a privilege not every professor can afford. We should be mindful of the human cost of “free” material.

A third alternative is to abandon textbooks altogether. Instead, using other open source materials, or sources that are freely available through the university to impart knowledge to students. These can be very effective by using various media to explain concepts. These can easily be customized to fit a specific course. In sciences, we can chose to make lab manuals we’ve designed available online and allow students to print them out, or pull them up online in class to avoid forcing them to pay exorbitant prices through the book store. The downsides are again that finding these sources can be time-consuming for professors, and in some cases, finding readings that are not too dense or involved can be tricky. Although, if part of the course is for students to develop various ways of explaining topics, either by videos, animations, slides, written descriptions, etc. that can be shared (with permission) to students in future semesters, this obstacle can be slowly overcome.

The best method to embrace open pedagogy depends on the professor and the course, and may change with time. However, if we truly desire education for all, we have to find ways to incorporate accessibility and inclusivity in the courses we design, and the materials we require.

The Myth of Multitasking

I was very excited that this was a topic of discussion for our blogs this week because I just gave a lecture to my HD 1004 class on Tuesday about the myth of multitasking. Please watch this short video before reading the rest of this post!

As I told them, when you think you’re multitasking, you’re really just doing two (or more) things poorly. Basically, when we say multitasking, we’re referring to one of two things:

Switch-tasking – the act of alternating between two (or more) attention-demanding tasks, or

Background tasking – the act of working on an attention-demanding task while something mundane is going on at the same time.

Texting while driving, grading while parenting, listening to a lecture while shopping online are all example of switch-tasking, or things people think they can do at the same time, but logistically and cognitively cannot. Background tasking can be commonly illustrated by listening to music while studying or having a podcast on while cleaning, but even these activities can get dicey. Have you ever been reading with Netflix on in the background and realized you’ve gone three pages without absorbing any content because you’ve actually been caught up in the 645th reveal of A in Pretty Little Liars? Or have you been cleaning your room and gotten so zoned in on folding and putting away clothes that you missed the half of the guest’s story?

Our brains are all-powerful organs and yet they have limits.

Working memory – the accessible state of memory retention; related to an immediate task (15 – 25 second storage)

The general rule of thumb is that you can keep 5-9 pieces of information in your working memory at a time (think about the ways we break up cell phone and credit card numbers into smaller groups of 4 digits, rather than 10 or 16 at a time). Attention isn’t the same as memory.

Attention – an active processing of information

Selective attention – the ability attend to only certain stimuli when multiple stimuli occur simultaneously

Divided attention/Split attention – the ability to process information from different sources simultaneously and probably a source from which the myth of multitasking developed

The video at the start of this post is a common selective attention task and also helps to illustrate some of the problems associated with the idea of multitasking. When I showed it to my class, about half the class actually saw the gorilla without it being pointed out. This suggests (as with all things) there are individual differences in cognitive capacity. The students who didn’t notice the gorilla the first time around can help to illustrate the way our brains work when we’re switch-tasking. If you’re trying to do two attention-requiring and unrelated tasks, your brain cannot process information from the two areas at the same time. The idea of divided attention complicates things a bit because the notion lends itself to the possibility of multitasking; however, divided attention is really referring to two different sources of information for the same or closely related tasks (e.g., reading powerpoint slides while listening to a lecture, not listening to a lecture while checking email).

Many professors and instructors know that students who have their laptops/phones/tablets out in class aren’t necessarily paying the best attention and so the challenge, addressed in some of the readings for this week, becomes what to do with technology in the classroom. The professor for whom I’m TA-ing this semester offers an extra credit opportunity for his students. At the beginning of the semester, students who choose to will sign a pledge not to use social media or technology unrelated to the course (taking notes on a laptop, accessing readings or slides on Canvas, for example, are fine). Those who sign the pledge are then eligible to write a reflection at the end of the semester, assessing their own ability to keep up with their promise and how it impacted their course experience.

I like his strategy, but through class observations, I know that many of the students who signed the pledge are still engaging with their technology in inappropriate ways during class. Further, I am working with a lab in my department to conduct an experimental study on the effect of cell phone presence and social media interaction on cognitive function. Did you know just having your cell phone visible can reduce cognitive performance?

In light of this, I am still struggling to figure out what my technology policy will be. A good portion of my first class is dedicated to establishing my students as responsible for their own education and discussing choices, consequences and accountability. Right now, I have that message and a class activity reading an article about distractions in class with a reflection activity with no other official technology policy, but I’m not sure that’s the way to go. I am interested in hearing my peers’ thoughts about the ideas of attention, multitasking and technology in the classroom.