Monthly Archives: November 2017

Project-Base-Learning is No Joke!

So, yesterday (Wednesday, 6 pm) I had to submit a draft version of a Project-Base-Learning (PBL) case-study for the Contemporary Pedagogy course I am taking. To clarify, not a PBL with all the specific details, but more like the general structure: Objectives, issue or problem, how it will work out, creating teams, project outcome, assessment…

My first thought was, how hard could this be? and following that, I opted to leave it as a low priority assignment and started to work on it Tuesday afternoon…. About four hours later I had “finished” it, and I felt partially happy with it, but knowing that it would require some more thinking to improve it…. class time came and surprise… I was not as close as I thought, in fact I had plenty of details still to figure out.

Yesterday’s experience helped me to once again corroborate: don’t leave assignments for last minute, even if they look not too hard. It also allowed me to realize that planning a PBL case-study requires research, time, effort… there are plenty of details that need to be figure out… and likely plenty more to improve after the first trial with a class… so yes, developing and implementing a PBL in a classroom is definitely not a joke.

If you are interested in knowing more about developing a PBL, I invite you to read this article posted in the University of Delaware website: “Dan Tries Problem-Based Learning: A Case Study”.

– Carlos F. Mantilla P.

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Student Surveys and Teaching Evaluations

At some point in the Contemporary Pedagogy class, we discussed the value of the end of the semester class surveys, or course evaluations. Some of the themes analyzed included the degree of honest responses from students, and the value of having them only at the end of the semester. Some of my conclusions: 1) when surveys are completed at the end of the semester, responses are more likely to be influenced by a student’s final grade. 2) a mid-semester survey, or earlier, could be more beneficial to make adjustments impacting students taking the class in the current term, hence probably more honest student responses. 3) bad reviews from bad students and excellent reviews from great students in respect to the teacher. So, is there a real value to conduct an end of the semester course evaluation?

The question about the usefulness of course evaluations is not new, and multiple tools to apply them have been developed. In “Can the Student Course Evaluation Be Redeemed?” (2015), Dan Berrett provided some examples of different surveys that have been used by multiple institutions, and responses from different higher education players about the value of such evaluations, with pros and cons being expressed. I invite you to read his article for a better insight, but if you trust my judgement, here is my take on the topic after reading it: developing a good course evaluation is not easy, but if you find the way to gage teaching effectiveness in a survey, you might have a good business opportunity in front of you.

I think professors should ask students to evaluate them more often so that changes can be made on the run, if necessary. However, if performed, questions have to be carefully thought, and the teacher must be prepared to make changes, or better don’t promise any changes, and just act accordingly to the outcome of the evaluation, and on reasonable requests. At the same time, self-evaluation by students should occur as well, after all a good learning environment requires both ends to be fully engaged. If students consider that they are not achieving the class objectives, they should be critical about their fault on that part. This could be achieved with open questions after exams, or after exams are returned. I don’t recall as a student taking time to reflect in what I was doing wrong, and sometimes just continued the same trend, although certainly a bad grade would force me to rethink my approach.

Now, weather a bad grade in a exam is indication of not learning and not achieving the objective, that is another matter…after all it is hard to base everything on a single grade.


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Do you understand my research?

This post is mainly geared towards the members of the Future Professoriate class at Virginia Tech, however, if you are outside of this class, outside of academia, I am confident and hope that you will find it interesting.

Do you understand my research? Often, this is a question I will ask my friends and family after I try to tell them what I have been doing for the last couple of years. Usually I get a YES, but have to admit that my research is a lot easier to explain compared to others. Or maybe I have found the way to explain it in simple terms, because certainly I have also explained it in terms that I leave everyone confused, including myself. Talking with people that is constantly immerse in the academia, or research environment, seems to be easier for the majority of researchers. But reaching out to the public, or even with researchers that are in a different field is usually a challenge.

About a month ago, or even a little bit longer, our Future Professoriate class transformed from the regular environment into a “theater school”. The session started with dialogues about how we usually communicate. Do we just talk? How about our body language? What type of spoken language are we using? How do we learn better? and then transitioned into action, taking as out of our comfort zones, being extrovert and not caring too much about what others could think. At least that was my experience.

Possibly it would had been better to post about this then, but well, better late than never, I guess. The main reason why I am posting about it now, and sharing a little of the story, is because an article I found while checking for topics to blog about this week: “Publicize Your Research” by Audrey Williams June (you may need subscription to access the link, sorry!). Reading through it brought memories about that evening in the FP class. There are very interesting points in the article, and I invite you to read it, but in case you skip it, think about the following as one of the core points: if research is not communicated outside of the academic world, how are we going to know about it? How are we going to know why it is important? How can we justify to the public that the tax money invested in education is not being wasted? (questions somewhat paraphrased from referenced article, this is my version of free style citation). To clarify, I am trying to write this post as a graduate student doing research and as a member of the general public at the same time, hence the “we” in my questions.

Communicating research/findings to the general audience is critical, and doing so effectively is even more critical. I am glad that several Universities are being proactive and offering workshops for faculty, staff and students to learn how to communicate better. See here for some examples, also check Virginia Tech’s Center for Communicating Science. I was extremely shy when I was younger, talking to my classmates and general public in high school was a challenge for me. Thankfully, I had good helpers along the way, people that forced me to get away from my comfort zone. Also being part of student organizations for the last 8 years has given me a confident bust as well. And is not only about public speaking, it is about communicating in general, it is about how you write your ideas for others to read. This blog for example, me a blogger? never crossed my mind.

So if you are a researcher, take time to train on how to effectively reach others. If you are someone outside of research, ask researchers what they do when you get a chance. The more you ask the better for us (researchers). The more we tell our research stories, the better for all.

Carlos F. Mantilla P.


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Your phone # is?… Your birthday is?… checking my “smart” phone

There was a time, many many years ago, when I knew the phone numbers of my immediate family and my best friends…those days are pretty much over. Today, I often have to check my “smart” phone’s directory, or just do so to avoid typing the number (for the few cases that I actually know it). The same goes with birthdays, I was very good at knowing my relatives and good friends, of course I still know those that I memorized a while ago. But in the case of my new friends, I don’t know. I have these dates written in a wall calendar, YES I USE ONE OF THOSE, and of course Facebook and Outlook would send me reminders.

Clive Thompson mentions in his book “Smarter Than You Think…How technology is changing our minds for better”, among other interesting points, technology (new digital tools) has/have enable humans to expand their memory. Yes, this is true from the perspective of external memory and all the data that can be stored, and information that we can get access to. But hasn’t this resulted in a shrinkage of our internal memory? Like Mr. Thompson, I don’t believe neuroscience is ready to analyze what is happening to our brains as a result of continuous interaction with technological devices. Or maybe now it is, don’t really know. The point I want to make is: we have definitely change our habits. The need that we had before to memorize appears to no longer be there. Yet in the event of an emergency, and the fatal circumstance of no “smart” phone to check, the perspective would be different. Seems like now we focus more on short term memory, and rely on the technology surrounding us to take charge of the long term memory.

As in most cases, the use of advanced technology in classrooms environments has pros and cons. I have seen situations like those expresed by Darren Rosenblum in “Leave your laptops at the Door to My Classroom“, where students would focus in their computers or cellphones, rather than the class activities. One would think that at graduate level classes this would not be a problem, because “graduate students are more mature than undergraduate students, and they really want to be there” (in quotation marks because I am sure someone else has already said this). But that is not the reality, I have sit in several graduate courses where this happens. So it is not a matter of education level….

I CONFESS: I HAVE DONE IT… I think it is a total disrespect to the professor and classmates (my apologies for past and future events). Yet it is not the laptop’s or phone’s fault, it is the individual. I could easily get distracted with a piece of paper and pen, making a drawing (or attempting to do so) or writing my plan for the next day, or whatever. So the problem is not the how? or the what? but the why? Why do I check my phone while in class? or anything else for that matter? or at almost any moment? The answer should be pretty obvious, lack of concentration, mindfulness, not being able to focus in the moment. For more on this, I invite you to read Sharon Salzberg’s “Three Simple Ways to Pay Attention”, CONCENTRATION, MINDFULNESS and COMPASSION. Perhaps it is the teacher’s fault too (respectful comment, not really applicable to GEDI classes), because sometimes class topics are boring or the class is boring even if the topic is interesting. I am planning to ask students to use their cellphones/laptops in my classes, for educational purposes, the how is another topic.

So, to finish this post before I lose you, and your interest goes somewhere else, let me finish with the following: it is up to you how to embrace technology in your everyday life (not that you needed to read it, but sometimes a reminder that you are owner of your decisions is not bad). If you want to keep checking your phone every five minutes, do it, but better not in class. If you want to continue taking notes in paper, do it. If you like taking notes in a laptop/tablet, keep doing it. If you like to write the birthdays (date) of your relatives and friends in a wall calendar (or any other calendar), YOU ARE AN AWESOME PERSON, keep doing it. If not, YOU ARE AWESOME TOO, but consider doing it :). What matters is how and when you use the technology available for you. “The Myth of the Disconnected Life”, a nice article on the how/when by Jason Farman.

Almost forgot, I purposely wrote “smart” phone, because we are the smart ones, not the phone… sometimes we tend to forget that.

Let’s keep learning. Let’s keep educating. Let’s keep moving forward. Let’s keep asking WHY. Let’s continue to be more mindful. Let’s forget about A, B, C, D, E and F (the grades, not the letters) … easier said than done. Let’s focus on making sure to help each other out. Let’s create successful teams. Let’s remember that we are unique and have differences, but we have at least one common element among us, perhaps the most important one: we are HUMANS (ambigous term nowadays?). Let’s be smarter than the “smart” technology we have created, let’s use it appropriately…. (I think this paragraph has become a good “super brief” executive summary of my GEDI journey and blog adventure).

Carlos F. Mantilla P.


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Reflections on Academic Freedom in the era of MOOCs

“More than MOOCs – What are the risks for academic freedom?” . This article was published by Jonathan Rees, a History Professor at Colorado State University – Pueblo, in the May-June 2014 issue of ACADEME  (the magazine of the American Association of University Professors – AAUP). And is the base of this entry.

Dr. Rees made very interesting points about the negative effects that MOOCs could have on academic freedom, when their use is not under the control of the instructor, and rather “imposed” by the administration. If you are curious about what academic freedom actually “covers and doesn’t cover”, please check here.  The main idea that I wanted to share with you from his article, is that using MOOCs could end in a professor becoming a teaching assistant, rather than the teacher. Granted, this sounds a little exaggerated, but at the end it could be the reality. This could be the case when MOOCs that are not truly open access, leaving no room for the instructor to decide what material to cover and what to omit, or what modules to skip. So, the issue is not really about using MOOCs, or other technology, in the classroom, but as expressed by Dr. Rees: ” who controls how that technology is employed in the classroom or whether it is employed at all”.

MOOCs could reduce the discussion in the classrooms, resulting in even more monotonous lectures, especially if the instructor does not have any flexibility on the material. As always the extremes are very bad. Dr. Rees suggests that the spread of MOOCs “could lead to the abandonment of skilled educational labor entirely, since there is no reason to pay people who went to graduate school to learn content if that content has already been purchased from an off-campus provider”. I don’t believe this statement to be necessarily true. Not everyone can learn by simply looking at an online course, and no matter how a MOOC is developed, I don’t think it will exceed what a good instructor can offer, because teaching is not only about delivering content.


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Some details of the Open Journal of Civil Engineering (OJCE)

Last week in the Future Professoriate class we talked about OPEN ACCESS, hence the topic of this post. I was highly surprise to hear about the wide range of fees that researchers have to pay to publish, from a few hundred dollars to the thousands. And then publishing companies charging subscriptions so that people could read them. But was also surprise about the large number of open access journal that already exist. To clarify, just in case, open access journals would also charge for publishing, because after all there are editorial costs, but they will not require subscription fees.

In the remaining of this post, I am going to discuss details about an open access journal in Civil Engineering, which name happens to be “Open Journal of Civil Engineering (OJCE)“. The journal is managed by Scientific Research Publishing (SCIRP), which specializes in academic publications. It currently publishes over 200 open access peer-review journals. SCIRP is registered in the state of Delaware, USA, but the actual publishing operations are run in China, mainly because of lower labor costs. For mail communication in the United States, a P.O. Box mailing address in California is available. The publishing company was founded by Professor Huaibei Zhou and a few other scholars. For more information about SCIRP, please click here.

The Open Journal of Civil Engineering accepts submissions for multiple fields in Civil Engineering. A detailed list is available in the journal’s website under Aims & Scope. The OJCE goal is “to provide a platform for scientists and academicians all over the world to promote, share, and discuss various new issues and developments in different areas of civil engineering” (from website). According to their online statements, all submitted manuscripts go through a peer-review process. To cover all the processing related costs, the journal charges an article processing fee of $599. The Chief Editor is  Dr. Hwai-Chung Wu, currently Associate Professor in the Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering at Wayne State University, Detroit, USA.

The OJCE open access statement, which comes from the definition of open access by the Budapest Open Access Initiative (BOAI), which SCIRP signed, reads: All articles from Open Journal of Civil Engineering (OJCE) have “free availability on the public internet, permitting any users to read, download, copy, distribute, print, search, or link to the full texts of these articles, crawl them for indexing, pass them as data to software, or use them for any other lawful purpose, without financial, legal, or technical barriers other than those inseparable from gaining access to the internet itself.” For details about reader rights, reuse rights, copyrights, and author posting rights, please check the About SCIRP website (How Open is SCIRP on the “Open Access Spectrum”?)

* The content of this post is in response to an assignment of the Future Professoriate Class.

– Carlos F. Mantilla P.

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