Two sides of a coin

TEAL Remote

The work to update the curricula in the faculty is currently on the way. In the music department, this has meant a more profound process. Instead of just tweaking the list of courses we offer (and expect students to complete, one way or another), we are trying to figure out what competencies should a graduate possess, what learning objectives should each individual course have so that in the end these competencies are met. When a course has certain learning objectives (and these aren’t just lists of facts like the current content descriptions, but are also more general, having to do with teamwork skills, writing skills etc.), it means it has a certain mode of teaching, and specific ways to assess how those objectives are reached (exam, essay, learning diary etc.).

This takes a lot of work, of course, but we are hoping that this work will be “in the bank” and we can make withdrawals when preparing the courses next year – implementing well-made plans should be easier than the current system of cooking stuff up based on vague content descriptions. Hopefully this will also result in a better learning experience for the students – things hopefully “make more sense”.

Anyway, as this process is now on, I’m reading what I can on the issue, and this NY Times article caught my attention. The mighty MIT has radically changed methods on some large lectures, and with the help of TEAL, they are now taught in interaction and in smaller groups. “Good stuff!” was my first reaction. “Where can we find alumni that can donate us a few millions to build these kinds of learning environments?” The story sort of made sense, smaller groups and active participation rather than passive listening, that’s surely going to benefit learning. Then one sentence caught my eye: the students opposed this. Having been in student politics, I started wondering why. Perhaps the high cost of the system was the reason, I mean, 2.5M is steep for a learning studio, no matter how high tech it is. But the readers’ comments to the story revealed what the article had almost managed to cover. The students don’t like it because it doesn’t work. They say the rise in attendance is due to the fact that in these courses, attendance affects your marks. And the higher pass ratio is due to laxed requirements, or “watering down” of the courses.

And this story in The Tech, an MIT newspaper, lists all the arguments against TEAL. This comment from a teaching assistant (TA) is to me the most serious one: “Students come out of TEAL with a dislike for physics, and they seem less inclined to major in physics. TEAL has never done a good job in instilling a sense of why [learning] this is important.” Now, that’s not just doing poorly, that’s causing damage.

It seems that there are two sides to this coin, as well. Technology can be useful (especially if you learn how to use it 🙂 ), but you can go too far, and sacrifice things you used to do well just because you are hell bent in using a modern system to do it. And, having someone donate shedloads of cash to build this fancy thing will of course increase the pressure to adopt the system. The same goes with everything, I suppose. The learning objectives -based models of curriculum are currently en vogue in the HE pedagogy community, and they are almost offered as a panacea for all educational needs and current problems. I think we’ve been reasonable in this, and taken the good bits without trying to be orthodox about it. Or at least, we are realistic about the size of the task at hand – this is a longer process.

(For those who are still with me, check out MIT’s Open CourseWare site for lots of interesting stuff.)

(Pic: detail from pic by Jodi Hilton for The New York Times)

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