There’s more than 50 shades of Grey

Relax, there will be no whips or leather belts in this post. However, this will be a post meant to whip myself and other future educators into shape!

I first thought of this title when considering ‘connecting the dots’ with respect to the problem based learning assignment and teaching ethics to engineers, in that often times, there is no clear cut answer as to what is wrong or right.

Then I started to think about institutions of learning, how there are liberal arts vs. technical colleges, both stand-alone and encapsulated within larger Universities, all with their own cultures and histories molded by the times.

Then I began thinking about how there are different teaching philosophies and techniques as well as different disciplines, individual students, varying lesson plans, geographic differences, and educators whose personalities are different. No technique is ‘correct’ for all cases or people.

Finally, I realized that in order to bring all of the lessons of this semester together under one unifying theme, the title of this blog was surprisingly appropriate. It isn’t black or white. It requires thought and when Seth Godin says he has 5 keys to reforming educational systems, then lists 5 keys, and then goes one to say he has 5 more, then wraps up with 2 more ‘myths’ for a grand total of 12, it goes to show you there many ways that the way we teach can be reformed to fit the students of today.

The main lessons that I’ve learned this semester that will be implemented immediately in my classrooms are:

  1. Incorporating technology in the classroom: as part of lesson delivery, assignments and feedback from student blogs, uploaded assignments, websites, and portfolios can be used to both deliver content and to get feedback on how much understanding the students get
  2. Syllabus : The importance of it as not just a mechanical document for how the class is run but more of a personality of the course and by extension of the professor
  3. Teaching Philosophy: the importance of revisiting this
  4. Engineering Ethics: Incorporating engineering ethics as a continued formal discussion as opposed to intermittent informal discussions
  5. Flipped classrooms: Having the students teach me what they know and what they have learned as a form of evaluation

Yes, you may turn your final paper in as an interpretive dance

I am a veteran of the internet, having had my first home dial-up connection in 1992. I have seen much and consumed much on the internet, for better or for worse. As any ‘old-timer’ would say, things are cyclical and often times people are versions of archetypes. So are the complaints of the aged it seems. Thomas Sheridan described the youth of his time as experiencing “total neglect of this art (of speaking)”, his time being the late 18th century of course. In Book III of Odes, circa 20 BC, Horace wrote of the youth that they were “a progeny, yet more corrupt”, clearly he had yet to witness any of the abominations to come.

One concept that continuously emerges is the idea that this generation is particularly distracted and socially inept due to technology and that in the glorious old days, this wasn’t the case. However, this doesn’t keep the youth from firing back, drawing parallels between news papers and smartphones.

As you can imagine my delight when the Thompson reading makes the claim that the technology we are using is a new form of content delivery, but it’s much more than that. Yes, Carr, it is re-wiring our brains (or in some cases, wiring them differently from the get-go, because some of these kids have never learned to read like you have) but is that really an problem? Along the same vein as the first week’s blog prompt I pose the challenge that if technology is changing, is the student’s problem or educators?  The first people to use pen and paper over inkwell and parchment were also disparaging tradition, but were they wrong?

Technology has been used in every other facet of our lives to make things easier, safer, more efficient, and more accessible, why then should we be resistant to that change in the places where it can be most effectively applied? Of course a map’s battery is never going to die unlike your cell phone’s GPS, you can’t accidentally reply-all on a letter from grandma, and you’d be hard pressed to die in a DUI in a horse-drawn carriage, but using that logic would mean taking a stance against innovation simply because the current solutions have merit, on which they were used to begin with.

Why is it then that we allow this to be the argument against technology in education? If students for 15 hours of their day are surrounded by immersive and interactive technologies, why should they be forced to uninterestedly pen and paper their way through the 9 most important hours of it?  The most impressive educational experiences I remember having were ones where we were allowed to choose the medium in which we demonstrated our understanding. I chose to make an indie film about Jason and Argonauts set in modern day Blacksburg, Virginia. Some designed board games, while others used flash and dreamweaver to design online games paralleling ancient mythological quests. Both effort and accuracy were rewarded.

This can pose a challenge in math and science, but not a significant one. Reading the Carr article again triggers memories of Wikipedia “article-hopping” where one is reading about a concept, and ctrl-clicks on a link to look at later. This can be done in a classroom where it is acknowledged that attention spans are limited. Therefore, an example of the “ctrl-clicks” can be where a concept is explained briefly on the chalk-board, then an example of said concept is shown in a video, then an in-class demonstration is held, then a continuation of the chalk-board explanation that is referential to the “ctrl-clicks”, giving both a distraction/mental break and context to the lesson. Small micro-assignments can then be given out as a demonstration of understanding. This model is closer to how the student consumes and interacts with their information in the rest of their day to day lives.

This is different than how I had information given to me, which was a barrage of lessons, followed by a lab or a demonstration at a later day or in a different period after the relevance was lost on me, then an assignment that was done at home after I had forgotten completely what we had talked about, finally an assessment after a month or so, requiring review, memorization, and regurgitation.

Recently, I saw an undergraduate researcher’s year long project result in a dance routine presented at a research symposium. Earlier this year, for the first time ever, a doctoral student defended his dissertation thesis in the form of a hip-hop album.

I am always reminded of the frequently mis-attributed quote from Dolbear from 1898 about judging fish on their ability to fly, but as a comparative bio-mechanist specializing in animal physiology, I know better. Though he may have been talking about children in the same classroom, I like to think he is talking about students across generations.

Engage your imagination’s Edu-drive!

Close your eyes and imagine the typical classroom. Chances are that you imagined a middle-aged man, standing at a lectern, droning on about f/p/s electron orbitals or the civil war’s status quo antebellum socio-economic effect on the primarily agrarian communities of the southern United States.

Drone Professor Droning on about Drones

It is no surprise then that the neo-liberal educational model that has been around for quite some time has lost it’s effect as of late, and has been subject to several experiments on its improvement. Some of these experiments we read about in past weeks, some we read about this week, and some I have experienced and participated in as a part of my tenure as a perpetual student.

Khaled Adjerid PhD graduation, circa 2045

Jean Lacoste conducted one of his own experiments with his classroom of, from what I can surmise, can only be 100’s of students, by individualizing the content, making all of it available and allowing the students to pick and choose both how they consume the information and how they assess themselves. Unsurprisingly, the students all did well, had many fewer questions for him, and everyone was happy.

“I want each student to feel important…I want to reach every single student in the class….I decided to individualize the entire course…I developed numerous formative assessments so students could accurately evaluate their progress throughout the semester…Even my heavy email load was improved as nuisance policy/special consideration requests were replaced by thoughtful questions about course content. I haven’t had this much fun since I left the small classroom.”



How is this even a real thing? First off, this solution doesn’t work for 2 reasons. The first is that it requires the instructor to develop a wider array of content that the students are free to pick and choose from. The instructor spends time developing in class, online, digital, video, handouts, etc. content that the students then get to pick from at their leisure for a more personalized experience, as if it were a Starbucks menus.

“I’ll have the grande online lecture with a venti homework and a skim final exam please”

Secondly, it doesn’t solve the problem that the author outlines in the introduction where he says that he doesn’t feel that he can connect personally with the students and the students don’t feel the professor can give enough feedback to each student or learn their names. This can only be solved by getting to know each student, spending time with their assessments, meeting them in office hours, and having quality interactions with them. This is piled on top of all of the other duties they may have, thus promptly killing the professor.

“RIP in Peace Professor Lacoste, at least you knew our names”

-His Students

I don’t want to be a negative Narendra, so I do want to point out that there are some of his methods that do contribute to a positive learning environment and a more personalized education. This does tend to give a sense of ownership to the learning and the material which can be a positive outcome, I just don’t feel that the entire learning, lesson plan, and assessment should be left to the students.

On a final note, there was a statement from the Carnes reading that stood out to me and I wanted to make a note of:

“No one can say that the future president of the Harvard Law Review (and of these United States) was not college material.”

– Mark C. Carnes

I  disagree. The famous quote from Einstein that says about judging a fish’s worth by assessing it’s ability to fly always comes to mind. Not everyone is ‘cut out’ for every field and should be assessed by the same measure nor should they all be required to attend colleges. I have seen many  engineering students who WERE NOT ENGINEERING MATERIAL. They tried at it many times, eventually, they found their home in AgSci, Business, or Psych; something ‘easier’ they admitted to me, to which I correct, “not easier, but more suited to their style of thinking and skill set”.

Others perhaps are not suited for college at all, rather for trade schools or apprenticeships, which were common and led to well paying careers up until the 70’s and 80’s before colleges became profit centers, not learning centers. These professions are now derided and looked down upon as being for the uneducated lower class, despite the fact that one who is successful in these trades can make well into the six figures, especially with an entrepreneurial mindset.

A plumber is one job they can’t outsource to China


…but do we value what we assess?

I was caught by the title of the title of one this week’s reading “We assess what we value”. It really is a striking and concise title, but unfortunately, I don’t think that it entirely accurate.

For many of us starting out, and perhaps for many seasoned educators as well, we grade on what we are told is important or what standards exist for our fields.  For early educators, we are even given courses with established syllabi, and in some cases, canned assignments and their grading schemes, with little to no room for improvisation or customization.

they wont even let me customize my grade book! #Bedazzled4Life

One such course for me was one that was designed by an instructor, fired for having low teaching evaluations, which was then resurrected by a new more research-oriented faculty member at the behest of the department as a time saving “this material already exists, use that” gesture. It was passed on to another course director, who was retiring, before ultimately being passed on to a set of graduate instructors.

Zombie lesson plans, leading students to follow suit

I was the first person to ask any questions as to why we did things the way we did and surprisingly, ran into little resistance. Most course directors had little attachment to the material unless it was their own, and were surprised that I wanted to increase my workload and delve deeper into assessing the students’ aptitudes of their learning. Some welcomed my input, and others didn’t like my meddling, but allowed me to continue customizing my courses given that I still tested on the same criteria, making anything I did, an extra add on for me.

my mantra, apparently

Some of my compatriots as well as the junior faculty that I spoke with however, have “discretionary” grades they can give out based on authenticity of knowledge not covered by the strict rubric based grading system. This 10-15 points per semester is supposed to guarantee that those who aren’t ‘book smart’ or ‘good at taking tests’ but demonstrate aptitude and understanding of the material can still get a good grade. However, in the large classes, the onus is on the student to develop rapport with the teach in office hours or interact with the teacher in class enough to show that understanding, making the system flawed as face time can be limited and some students prefer not to engage.

Good morning class, this semester, I’d like to get to know all 3500 of you on a one-on-one basis

But back to my original question, do we really assess what we value? OR at least at the higher-ed level, are we merely doing the bare minimum for assessment? Because anecdotally, I’ve seen many professors, even the ones who appeared to care, still following the more traditional assessment methods, where “body of knowledge” and “how” learning are emphasized.  This tends to leave students asking, “How can I get the maximum grade, and what set of facts can I know that will get me there?”.


Zen and the art of educational system repair

Take a deep breath


focus on one thing,


a single word,


a single phrase,


the most basic mantras of meditation and mindfulness,




now take a deep breath and hold it,


hold it just a second longer,


one second longer,


and now release.


You have now achieved mindfulness of the body and spirit,



Dr. Ellen J. Langer, however, published a paper on mindfulness that deviates slightly from the basics of zen and meditation.

By slightly, of course, I mean almost entirely, but for good reason. She posits that to be truly effective in the classroom as educators, we must have our students achieve mindfulness. She isn’t suggesting however, that we all get on top of our desks and hum in unison, unless you’re teaching a vibrations engineering class like I do.

“If we all hum at the the building’s resonant frequency, we can get the university safety inspector to pay us a visit”

What she, along with Dr. Wesch and Sir Ken Robison are suggesting is that we must throw out some of the old ‘sage on the stage’ and ‘blank stares in chairs’ teaching manuals and start to encourage a more interactive and customizable lesson plan.

“I’m haven’t understood anything since the syllabus and at this point I’m too afraid to ask”

The experts discussed how much more engaged and successful a student can be when they stop taking truths as gospel, when they are allowed to grapple with and own learned knowledge, when they start melding and molding their ideas around what they learned, when they are allowed to go back and forth between different concepts instead of focusing on one idea at a time, and when they get instant feedback on their individual conclusions, either from the instructor, from teaching assistants, or from their peers.

Students wrestling with ideas, together

But as an educator in a so-called ‘hard-science’, I still need to get my subject matter across before the end of the semester while, both myself and my students are being held to standards by the university. What am I to do?  How am I to embrace the diversity of my student body while accepting the conformity of the curriculum? How do I allow my students to express themselves and engage with me and each other, while still transmitting the entirety of each lesson? How do I allow them the time to ponder ideas and gain an individual ownership of them while staying on schedule?

The answer may lie in the discussion we had last week centered around networked learning. Having in-class lessons and discussions that continue online after the students have had time to ponder and perhaps discuss with each other later can be a solution. In addition to that, having interact with content online that is connected to the classroom discussions can be a way to individualize a student’s learning and supplement the curriculum without cutting into valuable classroom time.  Lastly, having assignments that include students generating original content and discussions that occur ‘after-hours’ exists as a way for the students to interact and express themselves, thereby  creating a connection to the classroom material and achieving mindfulness remotely.

“The first hour of enlightenment is free, then it’s $5  per minute of mindfulness after that”

Because, although we aren’t reaching nirvana per se in the classrooms, networked learning techniques may be the key to creating mindfully learning students who can understand subject matter while still expressing themselves and having a sense of individual ownership of their ideas.



So close yet so far away…

As an undergraduate engineering student, they constantly prided themselves on the amount of group work that we would engage in and how integrated technology was into the curriculum. It was for good reason because it was as advertised. The collaborative atmosphere was fostered from day one with at least 2 courses per semester requiring teamwork of some form and, starting with our freshman classes laptops were mandatory every day. By my senior year, tablet PCs were required and integrated into the classroom assignments as well; an unprecedented move in the years before iPads were ubiquitous.

“Commandment 11: thou shalt not Facebook during class!”

Years down the road, I find myself thankful for the forced interaction with both those who approached social interaction with ease and finesse as well as those who preferred solitude.  Adopting the latest technology, albeit by force, made us recognize both the importance of and the massive potential of being an early adopter of what would eventually become mainstream technologies. These have been important lessons that have helped me wear the many hats that I’ve worn in my life.

Fast forward 10 years to the high school and college students of now and what has changed? Companies and organizations still need people who can work on multiple teams simultaneously, deal with different (and sometimes difficult) personalities with ease, and can adopt new technologies and minimize costly learning curve times in the work place.

Ironically however, these two seemingly unrelated points of pride for universities have now converged as new technologies are being used to foster collaboration between students across a classroom table as well as across the globe. But the question we need to ask before hurriedly jumping on the speeding bullet train of progress is: Are we leaving anything behind on the platform?

Throughout the years I’ve had the now defunct Hotmail, AIM, and Myspace; and currently have Facebook, Skype, Vine, Snapchat, Twitter, Instagram, YikYak, Kik, Venmo, and so on. I think part of my education encouraging early adoption of technology has kept me from fearing the advent of new technology and seeing its potential, even in a classroom setting. For better or for worse, these technologies have created a place for people to express themselves, their opinions and views in an unprecedented manner.

How my students see me when they notice me checking my snapchat before class

It also has connected the world and created a global community, including a community of learners. However great the potential of the internet, I am still cautious and I understand the importance a birthday phone call in lieu of a Facebook like,  stopping by someone’s office instead of sending and email and awaiting a reply, or a video chat discussion of a book as opposed to an email chain where  perhaps some nuances are lost in the inflections in our voices and body language.

I suppose the major challenge going forward for educators seeking to make a more well rounded in and out of class room experience by integrating technology will be just how much is too much, and at what point will the companies and organizations that we send our graduates to start sending the students back for ‘personality and interaction’ training, because although they may be able to make “friends” and generate “likes” online, we all still need to get along IRL.