Thursday, June 11, 2009

I want to learn this…you want me to learn that…

A fascinating post on BoingBoing blog by Cory Doctorow, an author that I have a great deal of respect for, concerning learning. It tells the tale of a student at San Jose State University who had a run-in with his professor over the posting of his homework (computer code) on the Internet.

While the details of the incident are probably a repeat of incidents dating back to the first time a teacher and a student did not see eye to eye over sharing of information with other students, it was Cory’s assessment of the important learning moment from this tale.

There's a lot of meat on the bones of this story. The most important lesson from it for me is that students want to produce meaningful output from their course-assignments, things that have intrinsic value apart from their usefulness for assessing their progress in the course. Profs -- including me, at times -- fall into the lazy trap of wanting to assign rotework that can be endlessly recycled as work for new students, a model that fails when the students treat their work as useful in and of itself and therefore worthy of making public for their peers and other interested parties who find them through search results, links, etc.

I would agree with Cory’s assessment up to a point. I think it is true when the course is focusing on something the student wants to learn about, in other words, they are already self-motivated to learn. Other courses that may not necessarily interest the student, but are a required program by the university or corporate management, may not generate that level of interest.

This raises the interesting issue of how do we balance what we want to learn versus what others want us to learn? Of course every teacher thinks that his subject is the most important, but his students may not agree. It all depends upon their motivation. The question is how do you convince the student that even though he is not personally interested in a particular topic it is in his best interest to strive to perform to their highest level…to produce meaningful output, not just regurgitating what he thinks the teacher wants to hear.

The easy answer is to provide a motivating statement at the beginning of the course; this has been a staple in the corporate learning world for as long as I can remember. Provide the learner with a reason why they should want to learn the material. But is that always feasible. You ask any student and they can provide you with a class that they are required to take, but which they see no need to know the material.

My point is that not every class needs to involve producing meaningful work…sometimes proof that you are aware of the subject matter may be all that is necessary. Maybe the solution is to take the approach the state of Virginia is advancing, give students the option to take end-of-year tests or having their final grades based upon a portfolio of their work. The drawback with this effort is twofold.

  1. You have the issue that Cory talks about, the “lazy trap” that teachers fall into. It is easier to grade multiple-choice tests than it is to evaluate a portfolio.
  2. Is an “A” based on a final multiple-choice exam the equivalent of an “A” based upon a body of work.

The big question is how far as a society should we go in requiring students to learn information that they may not ever use. Is the concept of a well-rounded education a thing of the past?

Student challenges prof, wins right to post source code he wrote for course - Boing Boing

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