Teaching in 21st Century: Transitioning from Student Standardization

In his Ted talk on “What is school for?”, Seth Godin informs us that the current school system is in fact like an assembly line that processes the kids to turn them into “standard” human beings.  In this regard, the system aims to train standard students who behave, comply, and fit in the social setting that was created by the industrial revolution. The school tests are also a means to ensure that the aims of the standardization process have been successfully accomplished: The students remain at the same level unless they can pass the tests. However, as Seth Godin explains, the current system has long served its purpose in the era of industrialization, and now it is time to move on to a new one. Rather than encouraging soulless memorization, the new system should develop creativity in the students. In other words, the students should become able to connect dots, rather than passively collect dots. The new system should enhance freedom of thought alongside diverse and multiple-aspect understanding, instead of suppressing the students’ souls to make them obedient. In this new setting, teachers are replaced by mentors who guide the students to learn, rather than enforcing them to memorize the materials. This is possible by the emergence of new technologies like the internet: Students can listen to the pre-recorded lectures at home, and then do the homework and resolve their misunderstandings in the class. Yet, transitioning to such a novel setting is far from trivial and requires overcoming several challenges, a few of which I mention here:

1- If the standard system is gone, how can a hiring manager evaluate the students’ abilities based on their earned degrees?

2- In the real world, the number of available positions is always less than the number of candidates. If the standard system is gone, how can we fairly choose the fittest?

3- On one hand, the students need to be trained in a standard manner based on the requirements of the available jobs to have the maximum efficiency of the education-profession connection. On the other hand, creativity should be promoted so that society and industry can move forward. What is the best system to promote both aspects simultaneously?

4- Considering that many of the students in the middle of their education are already accustomed to the old system, how can we smoothly transition to a new system?

5- What are the unintended consequences of promoting personal creativity and kill the trait of passive obedience? If we go too far, wouldn’t the society become unstable?

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Critical faith and dynamic religion

Several religions and schools of thought have emerged throughout the history of mankind. Almost always, religions attract followers by the promise of giving meaning to human lives, which serves to help them make their peace with the fact that they are not immortal. In many of these religions, a crucial task of the followers is to have faith, e.g. in the religious stories, religious instructions, religious leaders, etc. In this short essay, I want to discuss my ideas about the interrelated concepts of “critical faith” and “dynamic religion”. I first discuss the function of faith in religions. Then, I discuss why the traditional style of “faith” could be harmful to individuals in specific and society in general. Finally, I discuss my ideas on how to resolve the mentioned challenges, such that one could still be religious but simultaneously avoid the mentioned harms.

Usually, the religions assert that the people who have a stronger faith, have a more chance of redemption. In the traditional sense, the meaning of having strong faith in an idea is to believe in it so strongly that nothing can change that belief. In many cases, the religions have a self-protective mechanism that encourages the followers to have stronger faith. For example, this mechanism could be in the form of heaven and hell: if people have strong faith they go to heaven but people with weak faith might go to hell, which could mean eternal resentment. In extreme cases, such a self-protective mechanism creates intense internal fears inside people’s minds, which can act as a dogmatism firewall that keeps any different thought or perspective out.

The mentioned dogmatism could internally take away the individuals’ free will, which allows the religious leaders, political parties, or other entities to abuse and manipulate the individuals for their own unjust purposes. Ironically, sometimes the direction that these individuals take is even contradictory to the essence of the same religion they are following but they become too blind to see it. Examples of these cases are people who fight for the Islamic State or People who, in the name of religion, are manipulated to vote in favor of a specific political party in democratic countries. When such religions have many dogmatic followers, the outcome is the emergence of powerful and tyrannic people or parties with unrighteous goals, without any effective backlash from society.

The remedy to the explained dogmatism is to have “critical faith”, meaning that we constantly challenge our beliefs with an unbiased perspective, as much as we can. This can be done by not accepting any idea to be true 100% and by learning the materials that are against our beliefs, rather than merely surrounding ourselves with the materials that further reinforce our “faith” through confirmation bias. Ideally, this practice should enable us to think about a subject from different perspectives, rather than just depending on our initial religious perspective.  Eventually, the process of critical thinking and having critical faith may lead to modifications to our religion and belief system, thus making our religion dynamic. It might even take a toll on our initial faith to the extent that leads to a change of religion. However, we should not be afraid since such a transformation is a small step in the path of personal development and intellectual growth. A society of individuals with critical faith and critical thinking is not easy to be tricked or manipulated, leading to the constant development of the society, not only in the intellectual aspects but also in the economic, social, and other aspects.

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Adding the digital flavor to the traditional pedagogy

Despite the growing demand for digital pedagogy and the creation of a massive amount of online courses over the web, most universities still prefer the traditional in-class style of teaching. Nonetheless, as I explain in this short essay, adding the digital flavor to the traditional teaching style can still highly boost the efficiency of learning from the students. I have written this essay mostly based on my experience of teaching the Optoelectronics lab course in the ECE department at Virginia Tech.

First, by recording a video of the lecture given in the class, the students can watch it over and over again if they need to. In the traditional style, students attend the class, write some notes while the teacher is delivering the material, and then they have to rely on the book and possibly the textbooks to learn the materials. However, this method is not efficient at all. It might happen that a student cannot attend a class due to, e.g., an illness situation. Also, it might be hard for the students to have full attention for over one hour continuously. So even the students that attend the class might not have the chance to absorb all the delivered materials. Accordingly, it is necessary to give the students a second chance to learn the materials delivered by the teacher, a task that becomes possible with the aid of camera-recording the class and making it available online.

Second, teaching abstract concepts by writing only on a white or blackboard could be boring and cause many students to lose their focus and attention in the early stages of the class. In this regard, it would be nice to combine the traditional style with Powerpoint presentations to make the class more attractive. Computer-based presentations also offer a plethora of opportunities. For example, one can visualize some content by delivering them as engaging animations. This could be especially helpful when we want to deliver abstract concepts, such as how a laser works. Yet, one should be cautious that just having slides is not enough and when having a repetitive and soulless theme, slides can even be more boring than the traditional white/blackboard style. Accordingly, special care must be given to design the slides in an interactive manner. Also, based on my experience, it will be even better if slides are used simultaneously with a white/blackboard style. This way, the teacher has more chances to satisfy the different flavors of learning.

Third, with the help of modern technology, it is now much easier and economically and environmentally more beneficial to deliver the homework; They can be uploaded online which could eliminate the need for billions of paper pieces and thus thousands of trees each year. Also, all of them can be almost permanently recorded without taking up any physical space or erode due to long-time storage. Furthermore, they can be delivered even if the students cannot come to the class. At a more advanced level, computer-based homework can even be designed such that doing them not only is not a burden for the student but also is a lot of fun. For example, it could be in the form of simple games or interactive tasks.

In conclusion, the use of modern technology can highly increase the quality of teaching even in the setting of the traditional style. With the current technology, a lot of new opportunities still exist that are waiting to be realized. Moreover, with the emergence of new technologies such as virtual reality and augmented reality, tons of even more creative and fascinating opportunities will be available in the near future.

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Problem-based learning vs. the classic style: A trade-off is a better choice.

Problem-Based Learning (PBL) is a pedagogical approach and curriculum design methodology often used in higher education and K-12 settings [Savery, J. R., & Duffy, T. M. (1995)]. In this method, the teacher exposes the students to “challenging, open-ended problems with no one right answer”. Then, students learn through self-directed and active investigation of the possible answers to the problem in small collaborative groups. Several benefits have been mentioned for this style of learning, such as developing critical thinking and creative skills in students and making the knowledge active for students so that they can apply it to other situations. Yet, there are some criticisms as well. Two important criticisms include: 1) students cannot know what are the important points they are really supposed to learn [Boud, D., & Feletti, G. (1997)]. 2) It might not be possible for the teacher to cover all the required materials. On the other hand, the classic teaching style allows for delivering more materials, including the key highlights, but does not foster the skill of critical thinking in students.  In this regard, I believe that it does not have to be either entirely classic style or entirely PBL. The better choice is to hit a middle ground such that we can have the advantages of both styles. For example, the teacher can deliver the main points in the class and have exams and homework to make sure students learn the key points. Simultaneously, the students can be given project assignments regarding the application of the materials they have learned. They can also be asked to present the findings of their works on the projects in class. Although this mixed style creates more work for the teacher, it makes it possible to deliver the key materials to the students while simultaneously developing their critical thinking skills.

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Active learning and sense of belonging in the class

Based on the definition, active learning is “an approach to education that does not consider students the passive recipients of knowledge transmitted from an expert, but rather, active agents in their own learning.” The approach of active learning offers two major benefits to the students: (1) making them improve their understanding by pushing them to make connections between their prior knowledge and the new concepts offered in the class, and (2) increasing their engagement which could augment the sense of belonging and participation, particularly for highly introvert students and those from marginalized groups. Marginalized students are those who are different from the majority due to their gender, sexuality, religion, race, socioeconomic class, etc., and research has shown that such students are highly potential to feel excluded from learning spaces (see, e.g., Tanner, 2013). Another group of students that might get excluded is the highly introverted ones. Such exclusion can be problematic for academic performance and even can spiral out of control, through a “negative recursive cycle…where psychological threat and poor performance feed off one another, leading to ever-worsening performance” (Cohen et al., 2006). In this short essay, I offer a closer look at the usefulness of the active learning process to increase the sense of belonging for highly introverted students and those from marginalized groups. I focus on the “pausing and asking question” technique as an example of a teaching technique that induces the active learning process.

By pausing from time-to-time and asking questions from the students during our teaching, we give the class the feeling that as a teacher, we care about them. Furthermore, it makes the students feel that they exist, and are their presence is important to us as a teacher and to the class as a whole. This process not only contributes to enhancing the self-esteem of the students but also gives them a sense of belonging to the class. In this regard, the “pausing and asking question” technique, as a subcategory of teaching styles that induce active learning, can lead to an increase in the academic performance of the students. Yet, to maximize this effect, especially on marginalized and introvert students, there exist some subtleties that one must take into consideration, as explained in the following paragraph.

First, the questions must be asked from random different students rather than just allowing the highly extrovert ones to talk, such that we can deliver the mentioned sense of belonging to all the students rather than just a few. Second, one should be careful to give neither less nor extra attention to the students from marginalized groups as giving the extra attention makes them feel we are pitying them, and giving less attention can easily make them feel discriminated against. Third, it is a good idea to learn the names of students (if possible) and address them by their names, as it both can enhance the feeling of friendship in the atmosphere and also gives the impression that we personally care about each of the students rather than all of them as a bunch. Finally, it might help to give bonus points for the questions we ask to indirectly encourage the students to pre-study the subject before coming to the class. Simultaneously, it is better to avoid any penalty to not induce an atmosphere of fear and hiding.

In summary, I explained how one can take advantage of the active learning process to enhance the academic performance of marginalized groups and highly-introvert students by creating a friendly atmosphere that the students feel belong to. I particularly analyzed the “pausing and asking question” technique as a generic method to promote the active learning process.

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Discovering my authentic teaching style

I always try to have a keen eye to learn the engaging behaviors that I observe in the teaching styles of other people. However, I have my own philosophy and do not believe in blindly imitating anyone to build my teaching style. I also try to be flexible about my style and make modifications based on the feedback that I receive from the students or other evaluators. In this regard, my style of teaching is always evolving. However, in some respects, I feel like I have reached a steady-state about how I should do the teaching task. In what follows, I mention some of the points that have almost become static pillars of my belief system about teaching.

First, I think it is important to be friendly to the students so that they feel relaxed in the class. On the other hand, I should be able to control the class so I should not solely put my efforts in the direction of satisfying everybody in the class. The best way is to create a balanced atmosphere of firmness and friendship in the class. The level of firmness is flexible and depends on the students since they come from different backgrounds and while some of them might respect the class even when I behave very friendly, it might not be the case for some others. The level of firmness also depends on the situation; I behave in a firmer manner if I think I am losing control but go back to a more friendly style when the situation goes back under my control.

Second, I think it is important to engage the students and not be the sole speaker in the class as the students might get sleepy. According to this rule, it happens a lot that whenever I want to teach something, I first articulate it as a question and ask for the opinions of several students, and then, I give the answer by explaining why they are right or wrong. Moreover, there might be bonus points if they tell the correct answer but no penalty if they are wrong. Furthermore, as an act of fairness and to engage the whole class, I ask the questions randomly from different students each time.

Third, I try to connect the course materials to real-world situations which I think could be important for the students to spark their interest in the topic. I particularly use this technique when the material is abstract as for this kind of material, it is very easy for the students to get distracted by wandering off in their thoughts. Moreover, by this technique, I implicitly remind the students that what I teach is inherently important and not just useful to get good grades.

Fourth, I try to be easygoing on grading to make the students feel the learning process is for their own good and not something that is forced to them to get good grades. Even I remind the students of this policy of mine several times during the semester so that they actually believe in it and feel relaxed.

Fifth, I believe that if I just use a single method to deliver information, it could become boring. Therefore, to further enhance the attention and learning efficiency of the students, I try to use different methods even in a single class. For example, I use the modern technology (e.g., Powerpoint, video, etc.) in combination with the traditional teaching method (e.g., writing on a whiteboard or blackboard).

As the final remark on this short essay, I want to talk about a recent challenge that requires further improvement of my teaching style. This semester, I have a student that is too enthusiastic, to the level that does not allow others to talk, and even interrupts me when I am giving a lecture. While I enjoyed it at first, I am now starting to feel that it might have a negative effect on other students by taking away the opportunity from them to show themselves. Moreover, it might give other students the impression that I am not actually in charge of the class. Simultaneously, I do not want to behave in a manner that kills the eagerness of the student that gives all the comments. I am still evaluating my behavior and the feedback from the students to reach a balance between when I allow that specific student to comment and when I do not. Moreover, how to make him not comment without disengaging him from the material.

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PhD in Europe vs. PhD in the US

There are considerable differences between a Ph.D. degree in Europe vs. getting a Ph.D. degree in the US. Here, I have very concisely summarized some key differences in terms of qualifications, required time, thesis topic, teaching requirement, coursework, funding and salary.

– Qualifications
First, unlike the US, there is no such thing as a direct Ph.D. in Europe and having a Master’s is a “must” before doing a Ph.D.
– Required time
European Ph.D. programs are generally shorter than those in the US. In Europe, doing a Ph.D. usually takes three to four years. For instance, Ph.D.s in France, Norway, the UK, and Germany take three years to complete. In contrast, it is much longer in the US and it may easily take up to five or six years (or sometimes even more!).
– Thesis topic
Ph.D. candidates in Europe must choose their thesis topic and supervisor during the application process. On the contrary, In the US, candidates apply to a department’s Ph.D. program, rather than a specific Ph.D. project and usually, students do not decide on their thesis topic until their second or third year.
– Teaching requirement:
In Europe, Ph.D. candidates occasionally have the opportunity to teach although it is not a requirement in many countries. In the US, Ph.D. candidates are often required to teach undergraduates (often as teaching assistants for a large lecture class) as part of their funding packages.
– Coursework
Many European Ph.D. programs require students to do little to no coursework. On the other hand, American Ph.D. programs, regardless of the field, require students to take two to three years of courses and seminars across the discipline.
– Funding and salary
In several European countries, Ph.D. students are seen as employees and have work contracts. Also, tuition fees are drastically lower in many European countries compared to the United States. Funding at American universities varies widely, as do tuition fees. Private universities have higher tuition than public state schools. The top schools offer five-year funding packages which cover tuition and fees and provide a monthly stipend. At other schools, students must compete for fellowships at the university, state, or national level to fund their PhDs. The department might also offer teaching assistantships or research assistantships which pay students a salary and usually partial tuition coverage.

Reference:
https://academicpositions.com/career-advice/phd-in-europe-or-the-us

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Higher Education: Microcredentials rather than Traditional Degrees

Once a rare commodity, the “Bachelor degree” has now become a matter of entitlement, and in fact, it is mainly a virtual commodity in the current era. As such, “the laws of economics must prevail to drive down its value as a differentiator. Clerks, service workers, and assistants are now almost “required” to be degreed”.
Companies mostly care about skills rather than degrees. In this regard, they need ways to evaluate whether a specific person has the necessary skills or not. Yet, though not irrelevant, many times, skills cannot be truly reflected in grades, majors, and transcripts.
This is the point where micro-credentials come into play. Simply, they “can provide clear, digestible information about what the learner knows and has done (and therefore should be able to continue to do) in language and classifications that are portable and easy to consume and trust.” Especially, open Badges issued by learning institutions are valuable because “they carry encrypted information about what the learner had to demonstrate to earn the badge as well as the context for the badge itself. It is also the important job of the institutions and organizations to frame and certify badges. Without that, there would be no value.”

Reference:
http://www.chalkandwire.com/future-higher-ed-micro-credentials-badging-p1/

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The Importance of University Branding

“No matter what, the education industry is still a business, it runs on money and efforts taken by humans. It is like any other business that needs constant capital and nurturing. If a college/ university miss out on marketing themselves properly to their audience, then there are good chances that in no time some other college can replace their place in the market. Therefore, for a change let’s consider these colleges from a business point of view and understand it is important for colleges to have impactful branding. Important for universities to have a proper marketing strategy for keeping themselves in the business.”
The big message is that in this competitive situation to attract new students if a university does not do a good job for marketing, it will eventually lose to its rivals even if it is better in terms of quality. Thus, it is very necessary for universities to make the people in society see them as much as possible. A task which highly increases the importance of branding. In addition, proper branding activity can bring universities a lot of financial profit which can increase their quality as well as efficiency.

Reference:

Why Your College/University Needs Impactful Branding (University Branding)

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The Importance of College Athletic Programs to Universities

College athletics programs are in fact a multibillion-dollar industry in a close link to school branding and reputation. And while individual sports programs do not necessarily result in a profit, there are many other benefits to colleges with significant implications on students, faculty, and community. Athletics programs can heighten the enrollment rate and college profiles, which often leads to financial windfalls for the institutions. For some colleges, athletics programs bring in a huge financial profit (sometimes millions of dollars) by selling Media rights, ticket sales, branding, and direct program donations. For example, a 2008 analysis conducted by ESPN showed that the “University of Alabama athletic department raked in nearly $124 million, thanks in large part to the storied reputation of its Crimson Tide football program”.

Reference:
https://education.seattlepi.com/importance-college-athletic-programs-universities-1749.html

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