Monthly Archives: December 2006

Political Junkie

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I’m spending the day watching the CBC live coverage of the Liberal leadership convention. What a nail-biter!

I am not and never have been a Liberal. I’ve never voted Liberal. I’ve always voted NDP. But as the country’s natural ruling party, I feel a particular stake in the Liberal game. I’ve never actively disliked the Liberals, at least, not often. I don’t find them morally objectionable. They’re just not left-leaning enough for my taste, so I side with the NDP.

But still. I want the Liberals to choose a leader I like, because that person will be our next Prime Minister, I’m fairly sure, and I’d prefer to like that person rather than feel a little sick at the sight of him (because it will definitely be a him at this point, thanks for trying, Martha Hall Findlay). I want to feel some affection for the Liberal leader, even though I’m unlikely to vote for his party.

Unless they pick Bob Rae. I will vote Liberal for the first time in my life if they pick him. Hell, I’ll become a card carrying member.

But that’s not looking all that likely at the moment. The second ballot gave us three final candidates (Michael Ignatieff, Bob Rae, and Stephane Dion). At the moment I’m assuming it’s going to go to Stephane Dion, which I can absolutely live with. I would sleep well with Stephane Dion as Prime Minister.

I will not sleep well with Michael Ignatieff as leader, but at least I know I won’t break my NDP voting track record if they choose him. If consistency is a blessing. Michael Ignatieff scares me. And not because he’s smart. He’s no smarter than the rest of them. Bob Rae is a Rhodes Scholar, Stephane Dion has a PhD in Sociology. As a Harvard graduate, I’m not uniquely impressed that Michael Ignatieff is a Harvard professor. What I see is a guy who’s been living outside the country for most of his adult life, and deigns to drop back in and try to run the place. He’s never done anything like this before. He has and will continue to make public mistakes that will cost us (Quebecois as a nation, anyone?). I’m just not delighted about that prospect. Yes he’s smart, I’m sure he’s a great guy, but I don’t want him running my country. I’m hoping that, after the third ballot, if Bob comes in third, he throws his lot in with Stephane.

But boy is it exciting to watch! Lots of cheering, backroom meetings happening on the convention floor, people dropping out of the race and picking sides, dramatically walking across the floor to the new camp, greeted ceremoniously, all that. Very exciting. And we have Peter and Rex doing the commentary! (Rex Murphy: also a Rhodes scholar.) I couldn’t ask for better!

Once again, I’m just saying: if Bob wins, I buy a Liberal party membership. If not, it’s back to the NDP I go.

Sometimes, Web 2.0 Hurts

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Oh boy. I didn’t see this one coming, though I suppose I should have: Students Used for Cheap Labour. This is a link to our student newspaper, and possibly it loads better in your browser than it does in mine, but I had to view its source to get at the content, so I will explain. Steve Joordens, a psychology prof at UTSC, has been working on a piece of software that has students engaging in not just reading and responding to articles, but actually grading each other’s work:

The program PeerScholar is currently being used to mark two written assignments, which are worth 5 percent each. After writing their own answers in the program, students are asked to log in later during the week to read over other students’ answers. Students are then asked to grade each answer based on criterion available on the website. All student work is graded by five students, to provide fairness in the marking, Joordans [sic]claims.

I’ve met Steve. I went over to UTSC a few months ago to talk with him about what he’s doing and get a demo. He’s a very nice guy, very smart guy, and while he’s taken a very different approach to instructional technology than I have, his work is very interesting. I found myself very challenged by what he’s doing because it’s so radically different and yet so similar to the work I’m doing myself. The pool of data he’s gathered means that he can do some serious statistical analysis on how students grade, the numbers of students who will try to game the system, how to account for gaming the system, etc. It hit my like a brick wall; stats. Instructional technology as a thing that gathers stats, from which we can extrapolate and learn something about the user group. It’s just not in my repetoire of goals, what can I say, that’s what a background in english, history and theological studies gets you. Seeing a demo of PeerScholar showed me my biases very, very clearly. It was like looking into a mirror for the first time. Revealing and a little unsettling.

My focus has always been more touchy-feely, more humanities than social sciences, in that I’m more interested in using “web 2.0” to create a culture of feedback inside a class, to use comment features as a way to train students to work up a response to everything they read, to make reading scholarly work simply another form of dialogue rather than monologue. As a way to help build a sense of community, because community always needs to be built and strengthened. I generally steer clear of grading per se; assessment is a grey area for me in a lot of ways, and while I have ideas about it, I still feel that the instructor is the best judge when it comes to assessing student work. When it comes to interactive work, it seems to me that grading less rather than more (grading the whole experience, the whole process, rather than a single instance) is the way to go. So it wouldn’t have occurred to me to include students grading each other as a feature. Reacting to each other? Yes. Leaving feedback, starting a discussion, quoting each other, definitely. But grading seems so…formal. Final. Mercenary, somehow. But Professor Joordens is a working instructor, with a huge class to teach, so I can easily see how he would stop to consider how technology could help automate the process. If they don’t automate it, students in those classes will only be able to express themselves through scantron sheets. I appreciate what he’s trying to do. I can absolutely understand and respect the desire to get those students getting more engaged and doing more writing about what they’re reading. I can’t think of a more passive and limiting educational experience than nothing but multiple choice exams for assessment. So I see where he’s coming from.

I didn’t see this coming, though:

However, according CUPE 3902, since marking and grading of student work is a paid position at U of T, the students are subsequently covered by the Collective Agreement for Teaching Assistants, which also makes them members of the union. As a result of this, CUPE 3902 is arguing that students are being made to work for free, which CUPE 3902 Chair Anil Varughese claims is to “compensate for the failure to hire enough trained and qualified teaching assistants to evaluate them.”

Ack! Slippery slope, isn’t it. Reading an article and responding to it is coursework, but reading another student’s response and assigning it a grade is paid labour. I absolutely see CUPE’s point, though, and so does Professor Joordens:

On the UTSC’s PSYA01 website, Joordans [sic] goes on to say, “I will be completely honest. The original reason for seriously considering a peer-to-peer evaluation process was financial. We cannot afford to pay a large team of TAs to mark written answers for large classes. Moreover, it would take them so long to do the marking that it also just wouldn’t be practical. Peer-to-peer evaluation, when combined with great internet programming, is fast and cheap.”

Oops.

The Star has weighed in on this issue as well: Peer Marking Gets a Negative Grade:

Jemy Joseph, 20, “absolutely loved the idea” when she found out her course at the University of Toronto Scarborough also featured short, written assignments that would be returned with assessments of ability to write and think critically.
Her problem was that the marking — worth 10 per cent of her final grade — was done by her 1,500 classmates, as part of peerScholar, an online evaluation program in limited use at the school.

“The idea behind it is great because you’re not just getting graded but you’re also getting some sort of feedback,” said Joseph, who took the course in 2004. “But I’m not comfortable with getting marks from random students who have no experience in grading and may not put a lot of work into it.”

If I recall correctly, the statistics indicate that students are getting roughly the same grade from each other than they would get from a graduate TA. Though possibly that’s an aggregate statistic, I’m not sure. (Stats: really not my territory.) I don’t think this student is actually complaining about the grade she got, but more about the relative emptiness behind it. She feels cheated out of not getting that feedback from the person teaching the course, or someone who is part of the authority of the course staff. There’s a piece missing there that we need to define. I think it’s easy to see the value that faculty bring to courses, but often the shift into using more technology in the classroom makes people forget about that value, or think it can be replaced by something automated. But students clearly still value the experience and knowledge of instructors themselves. You can give them the grades they want, give them a relatively easy and quick way to get those grades, but they still want more of the faculty member’s time and thoughts. This is a good thing; students aren’t necessarily just here to pick up a grade.

More from the Star article:

“We’re not opposed to finding ways to move beyond multiple-choice testing,” Chantal Sundaram, a representative with Local 3902 of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, said yesterday. “But we think the best way to do that, to have more critical thinking and more long, written answers in introductory courses, is by hiring more teaching assistants. …

“This practice raises issues around our collective agreement and our workplace, but we believe it’s also an issue around the quality of education for the undergraduate students.”

Again, the union has a point. If multiple choice is not desireable and we accept Steve Joordens’ mission, what are the options when faced with 1500 students per term who want to take PSY100?

The basic structure of the system Steve Joordens created is, I think, sound; students can still read and evaluate each other’s work, I think, it just can’t translate directly into a grade. It seems to me. I hadn’t considered how very carefully we need to tread when moving interactive internet applications into the classroom in a deeply unionized environment. I’ve always been on the side of hiring more TAs when technology is involved rather than fewer; the more feedback from official, experienced sources, the better.

This grievance is definitely one to grow on.

Course (Learning) Management Systems

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You know what would be cool? If course management systems made use of the proof of concept shown to us by EyeOS. So you’d still log into a system, but that system would look like a desktop with applications and files on it. Launch the discussion board, open the syllabus, work on a collaborative document, open the IM client and see who from your classes is online…internal movie viewer, audio player…discreet client for searching databases/the library catalogue…space there to save your work (say, on the desktop, or in a my documents folder)…post it notes on the desktop when your instructor has something important to say to you…

Just sayin’.

Agency

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I’m at a workshop today, and so far all my notes on the first presentation revolve around various concepts of ownership. This something I’ve been chewing over for some time, and trying to find ways to express. My experience thus far in educational technology (and education in general, honestly) is that when the learner is granted a measure of owernship over the site of their learning, they are dramatically more engaged in the material. Owernship seems to be one of the important elements that bridges the gap between working toward a grade and working toward a greater, more personal goal. (And, inevitably, the grades sky-rocket when student engagement is that much higher.)

This is the argument I’ve tried to use in describing the difference between a discussion board and a blog; you get a different kind of content on a blog, at least in part because a blog belongs to the student, while a discussion board belongs to the instructor. On a discussion board, a single person can dominate the dicussion, because while the space is not finite, there is a single, shared location for input; on a blog, you naturally dominate it, because it’s yours. And everyone has their own space to dominate. The sense of space is completely different.

I keep trying to make this argument, but I always feel on shaky ground. It’s just my gut talking. Ownership: why is that so significant? My experience is that it’s true, but I feel like I’m not expressing it well or describing it completely enough. I feel as though I don’t entirely understand it myself.

But other words are coming out of this presentation that address the same issue: the presenter (Clare Brett) talks about the importance of student agency, of student control. Is this all part and parcel of the same niggling thing I’ve been feeing?

I’m also pushed toward thinking about what agency and ownership means very personally, in my own work; since I know that applications can be (and should be!) routinely improved and expanded, I feel very empowered by the introduction of systems like Blackboard to our world. Sure, it has its problems, but we can edit this thing, we can add to it, we can make it what we need. I feel my own agency in relation to it. So I can see what it means to feel your own agency, primarily because when I look around me I see a lot of people feeling oppressed by it, feeling boxed in, constrained by a piece of technology.