Posts Tagged ‘Instruction’

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What a Wonderful World it Would Be: Open Textbooks at Bronx CC

December 16th, 2010

Think of it: students can lower their debt, enhance their chances for success, take more classes, and graduate sooner.

Teachers can have more engaged students, better passing rates, and more flexibility with the course materials.

Let’s throw in the bonus of helping to save the planet.

I am not describing the future. This is now.

How can we accomplish all this? It’s easy. We offer every student at CUNY free textbooks. At the CUNY IT Conference on December 3rd, I presented on the topic of open textbooks to a standing room only crowd with about a dozen people forced to stand in the hallway trying to catch some of what was said.

As we all know, the exorbitant cost of college textbooks is crippling CUNY’s mission to bring higher education to striving New York City students. Students at CUNY community colleges spend, on average, $1,000 per year on textbooks—an amount equal to 34% of their tuition. Faced with such costs, many students reduce their course loads, slowing their progress toward their degrees, and—too often—leading them to drop out. Some 50% of students enrolled in classes try to get by without purchasing the costly textbooks, here again lowering their chances for success. Community colleges, both here in New York and across the country, see the results in distressingly low completion rates.

We can expect no help from the profit-driven textbook industry. In seven years textbook prices rose 186%–double the rate of inflation.

But, we don’t need their help.

Here are just two examples of how we can work without a bookstore.

Introduction to Economic Analysis is being used at Harvard, NYU, Caltech, and I can’t tell you how many other colleges and universities. It was written by R. Preston McAfee, recently of Caltech, who has held four endowed chairs in economics. This book is available to students, online . . . FREE. (A printed copy will cost students $15.20)

Collaborative Statistics written Barbara Illowsky & Susan Dean, used at Emory, Virginia Tech, SUNY Purchase, and elsewhere is also online free.

Today there are thousands of these textbooks, in virtually every subject area, written by eminent scholars, professionally edited, widely reviewed, and available to students online at no cost. These Open Educational Resources (OER) offer a real, lasting solution to the textbook problem CUNY has recognized and grappled with.

Open Educational Resources offer not an acceptable substitute for traditional textbooks, but texts that are actually superior in important ways.

First, they are easy to use. Students can read the text in various formats. Highlight and make notes. Print a page they want, several pages–the entire book, if they wish. Convenient text features include vocabulary words that automatically link to their definitions, so students don’t have to thumb through a glossary in the back of the book. There are even adaptive features for students with disabilities.

Second, these textbooks open a new world of flexibility for teachers. Instructors can choose the best chapters from different texts—why not since they all are free? Until now teachers have often passed up valuable materials, because they couldn’t justify having students buy a whole book when they’re only going to use a small portion of it.

Teachers can also modify the contents of open texts. Change parts, add related materials from elsewhere. Revise text to emphasize particular points, make it more accessible or relevant to their students’ experiences.

We need to expand this effort here at CUNY. And then we need to move from generating support for the concept—which is easy—to the difficult work of implementation. Adopting new textbooks is a major undertaking. Researching the books themselves is very time-consuming: as I mentioned, there are thousands. The ability to combine and/or modify the books complicates the process further. If books are to be adopted department-wide, a committee must do the work together; consensus must be built.

Funding is needed to enable faculty to take on this work. Importantly, this funding, unlike annual funds to abate textbook costs, is temporary. Once free textbooks are adopted, they’re free—for one class of students after another. And once teachers discover what they can do with open resources, I cannot imagine their ever going back.

I am seeking funding from the NYC Council to whom I spoke as part of the CUNY contingent on 11/29, and also from CUNY to implement a pilot program at Bronx CC.

I close with the words of Thomas Jefferson, words I have read in three different publications in just the last week: “The field of knowledge is the common property of mankind.” That vision—which is the vision that inspirits the City University of New York—is today, as never before in history, a living reality. Today, NYC students, for whom textbooks costs have been a crushing burden, can start using world class textbooks—for FREE.

What a wonderful world it can be.

CUNY IT Conference Day 1

December 4th, 2010

Friday marked my first time attending the CUNY IT conference, and it was definitely interesting. Having only attended academic or grad student conferences I was surprised by the size, the suits, and all the vendors. The sessions were filled with lots of useful information and even the occasional heckler (who knew?!). Below are notes from just the sessions I attended, hopefully others will post about other sessions since there were so many at the same time that looked great. Below is my summary of day 1, looking forward to day 2 at The Grad Center.

ePortfolios Across CUNY: Aggregating and Integrating Information

Barbara Walters, Joe Ugoretz, Sarah Morgano and our own Howard Wach presented an opening session on the experiences of ePortfolio use and development on their campuses. Barbara outlined a set of “Universal Concerns” that any school/program/instructor interested in implementing EPortfolios would have to consider. Joe and Howard gave a history of ePortfolio development at Macaulay Honors College and Bronx Community College, respectively. And Howard brought up the interesting point that ePortfolios are much more of a pedagogical concept than just a technology.

All of the presenters have worked hard on a public Commons wiki page for ePortfolios. As with all wikis, they depend on collective upkeep, so if you have resources to add as you’re browsing their thorough collection of links I’m sure they and others would appreciate it!

The big questions that came out of this session: Is there any one-size-fits-all model of ePortfolio that will work across the CUNY campuses? (I know, rhetorical, but still useful) What does the “E” add to the concept of a portfolio? How do you prepare faculty for using ePortfolios? And, of course, the always-present-even-if-not-spoken-aloud question of assessment: how can we use ePortfolios to assess both individual learning and programmatic development?

Resources: Commons ePortfolio wiki page, AAEEBL, Bronx’s ePortfolio resource page

Blogs, ePortfolio and Assessment in the Majors: Pedagogies and Rubrics in Three Programs

Michael Cripps, Xin Bai and Michael Smith gave a great presentation on their experiences with blogs and ePortfolios. My notes are a little lacking because I entered late (tremendously long lunch line) and had no outlet for my limping laptop (note to self: charge laptop fully before tech conferences, doh!).

I came in just in time to see Michael Cripps showing how his students have used blogs differently, including a really creative use of a fiction blog, in which a student blogs from the perspective of a young woman who has survived a zombiepocalypse and found a computer on which to chronicle her experience. What a great way to see how students can take a technology in a direction you might never have thought. Cripps also showed blogs that were for a specific project juxtaposed with the same student’s more general ePortfolio. I found this to be a great example of how blogs can provide a more “messy” (in a good way) writing workspace for the nuts and bolts development and discussion and the final products can be shared in a portfolio, which is even then still developing over the course of the students’ education. It’s like viewing a digital spiral or concentric circles of writing, learning, development and identity.

Xin Bai presented on using ePortfolios as a way for teaching education students to meet NCATE requirements. This is definitely a great use of ePortfolios that I’ve seen before. ePortfolios seem particularly useful for applied fields where students need to graduate with a display of core competencies. At BCC we’ve seen a lot of success with this in our Media Technology program. It also made me wish I was preparing an ePortfolio for my job market package instead of the generically presented b/w teaching and research statements. Surely a search committee would find an ePortfolio more interesting and I know it would reflect more of “me” than my little blue folders and linen paper.

The issue of students needing a visible display of their talents/competencies was a point also raised by Michael Smith in his presentation of the great student work happening at York. But one of the most poignant moments came when Smith reminded us that Blackboard gives students practically zero control over their own work at the end of the semester (unless they happen to export it all). As instructors we know that learning is developmental and cumulative, so why would we use a software that requires all evidence of the work that took place, especially the collaborative and process-based work to be closed after the finals are in? Of course there are distinct advantages of both platforms, but this is an important question to consider.

Finally, out of the comments and discussion came reference to the great work being done at Baruch when Luke Waltzer mentioned Tom Harbison’s very impressive collaborative Modern American History course blog.

Facts (and Myths) about Student Perceptions and Use of Technology

In a completely packed house (many of us sat on the floor), Queens college faculty members Michelle Fraboni, Eva Fernandez and Nancy Foasberg presented findings from a student technology survey. They opened by juxtaposing student sentiments toward technology use in the classroom with their self-reports of their own technology savviness in sometimes contradictory ways. For instance, some students who are tech savvy report not wanting much technology use in their classrooms. Others, who may be more skeptical about technology report wanting more online course offerings. The presentation was helpful in that it reminded us that students we perceive as digital “natives” or digital “immigrants” may have very different ideas of what they want out of the classroom and their learning experiences.

For me this brought up two questions. First, the obvious, how should this finding shape the choices we make in the classroom about the technology we use? Second, I think many of us assume that it is important to use technology in the classroom to improve our students’ “information technology literacy” — but if students are seeing their school and personal “tech” lives as distinct, should we reexamine our expectations on how the tech in the classroom makes its way into their daily tech lives?

Finally, part-way through I found myself wishing the presenters would compare the QC sample with the recent ECAR report, since I was thinking that QC students are of course quite different than other samples. They didn’t disappoint! They presented percentage comparisons between the two samples and the QC and ECAR samples were actually quite similar. Though questions were raised about recruitment methods and sample size, it was still interesting to see yet another common assumption brought up for questioning in light of contradictory data. I guess we don’t always know what we think we know about students and technology.

(The full presentation of slides are available here.)

Peer Mentoring: A Catalyst for Faculty Innovation

Rounding out a day of helpful sessions, TE(A)CH’s own Moronke Oshinmartin, Charles Alston, Albert Robinson, Laura Broughton, Giulia Guarnieri and Stephen Powers gave a great presentation about peer mentoring. What really stood out to me in their presentation was how mentoring can grow organically when the stage is set with a blended model that breaks down any sort of hierarchy and instead focuses on knowledge and enthusiasm. They documented how faculty members go through training and then become peer mentors themselves but they also showcased their innovative Instructional Technology Tutors (ITT) program that trains students to be technology assistants for faculty members and their student peers. Their model exemplifies the kind of collaborative development where all parties benefit from the process. But, of course, I might be a little biased. 🙂

Some great resources came out of their presentation including: Voicethread, Scribblar, Audacity, CamStudio, Windows Movie Maker. I couldn’t write them all down because I was busy snapping photos, so if I left some out please add them in the comments.

All in all it was a long but very useful day. It was also interesting to see the different worlds of CUNY IT converge in one space. As someone who tends to work on focused projects with a few faculty members I didn’t quite have an appreciation for the scale of technology at the institutional level, the administrative and security concerns, and the number of other folks who are considering the same questions from different perspectives. That was certainly helpful to see. My only disappointment was in not walking away with one of the many (and, frankly, pretty decent) raffle prizes. *sigh*

Your Writing Process: Reflecting and Modeling for Students

November 30th, 2010

Last week, yes, just last week, I began thinking about my own processes of research and writing and what my responsibility was as an instructor to model these practices for my students. In the week since, a series of articles, blog posts, tweets, late night flashes of insight, etc. has left me with the realization that this can’t all be settled in a single blog post (darn!). I would, however, like to get a conversation going that has three prongs: 1) what do you use to aggregate digital information; 2) how do you engage in writing, from quick jots to assembling full manuscripts; and 3) how do you or should you share these with your students?

Each of these “prongs” warrants multiple blog posts on their own. But my point here is to delineate my process and consider how I could/should share this with students (and even faculty) that I work with to help them develop and understand their own process of gathering information and writing about it. I think one common pitfall in using technology in the classroom is that we just assume we’re dealing with a group of “digital natives” who are skilled in all things tech. However, I think a major responsibility in using tech in the classroom is to discuss process in order to help your students achieve greater technology and information literacy.
1. Keeping track of it all (RSS, GoogleReader, Del.icio.us, Evernote, Instapaper)
The process of keeping track of the constant flow of digital information, much less organizing it into coherent thoughts, is a bit of an ongoing and ever-changing mystery to me. Rather than investigate the millions of options out there, I’ll outline a bit of my own process. It sometimes feels redundant, but I’ve tried to streamline it as much as possible by making sure that much of it stays in the cloud and syncs across devices. For subscribing to websites I use GoogleReader and have sites sorted into folders. Many journals provide RSS updates that I have in specific folders as well (but more on keeping up with journals in a future post). GoogleReader is available from any internet connection and it syncs to my phone through Reeder. When I find something useful I tag it in del.icio.us. Admittedly, I’ve been playing with Evernote lately and am thinking it might eclipse this step, but the tagging features in del.icio.us are hard to beat. For those things I know I want to read but gosh they’re just too long (!) I send them to Instapaper and save them for long commutes or the rare transfer-to-Kindle (which is admittedly a bit wonky but I don’t have my hands on an iPad…YET).
2a. Writing Helpers: Assembling and Jotting (750words, Penzu, Evernote)
As a former faithful user of Journler I was dismayed to hear it had ceased development. Forced to find another simple but flexible software for collecting my thoughts, meeting notes, scribbles, etc. I began looking around the net, hoping to find something that was cloud-based. For personal writing and journaling there’s 750words.com which counts down the words and then provides a loose text analysis when you’re finished. It is premised on the idea that simply sitting in the chair and forcing out 750 words can do wonders for your writing process. Penzu, premised on a similar idea, also touts the claims of improved mental health. Penzu’s approach seems to be a bit more flexible and organizable compared to 750’s minimalist approach. Both are private, which can be particularly reassuring to students who may want to write online but aren’t quite ready for the public leap of the blog.
I’ve recently been exploring Evernote (I know, late to the party) and it is proving helpful in bridging the above processes (keeping track, assembling, and jotting, and the next step, actual writing). I like that I can plunk links in my little notebooks, sync them across practically ANY web-enabled device, access it from my home Macs and school PCs, and, when the mood strikes, compose little sentences and summaries around my snippets of digital info. I’m still getting the hang of it, but this Evernote thing might just be where it’s at.
2b. Writing helpers: For those thoughts longer than a jot (Scrivener)
But what about when you’re ready to actually compose thoughts into paragraphs or — gasp — pages? I began exploring these options when I started writing my dissertation and found the glare of a blank Word document particularly horrifying. And crippling. I’m actually composing this (lengthy) blog post in Evernote, but I’ve found my dissertation, job market materials, and article manuscripts to come together well in Scrivener. [Note: Mac only (Update: Windows Beta available and official launch in January!  and not-free, though educational license available.] Originally designed for screen-writing (but updated recently to include APA and other templates), Scrivener provides movable and sortable pages, split screen viewing, full-screen writing mode and — to the delight of my school-girl-writing-a-research-paper-with-index-cards-and-Encyclopedia-Brittanica days — a corkboard with index cards! I’ve been using Scrivener to take the notes and scribbles from the other services and assemble them into somewhat flowing documents. When it seems to make enough sense and actually totals a fair amount of pages, I can easily export my scrivener file to a Word document. All of a sudden that white page is not staring blankly at me but is filled with words that, if I’m lucky, reach a healthy page count.
3. From Process to Practice: Reflexivity in Teaching
So, those are my ways of weeding through information, keeping track of those half thoughts that might develop into full thoughts and bringing them together into a coherent whole. But now to the crux of the matter. If it has taken me years of practice, months of trial-and-error, and (at least) a week of very concentrated thinking to suss out my own process, what do we expect from our students? What is our role, as technologically engaged and savvy instructors, to help our students find their way through not only the plethora of information available but the tools that can help them organize and *write*? I’ll never forget showing my students GoogleReader and explaining to them what an “RSS” was. I thought some of their heads might explode — they were so excited! I was stunned they didn’t know about this basic technology, but if you’re primarily using Facebook and iTunes and occasionally wrestling with EbscoHost, then why would you?
This served as a lesson for me: that I shouldn’t assume my students are engaging with current events or academic material in any certain way or that they understand how technology can help them keep up and keep track.
From that point on I tried to model my steps, when time allowed, to help them see my own process.
Which leads me to my concluding questions: Do you model your own practices/processes for your students? How have they responded? Do you think it is your responsibility to do so? Please feel free to answer in the comments, pose more questions. And, as always, tips on how to streamline my process or other techy-helpers are appreciated.
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