Category Archives: GRAD 5104

Open vs Guided Assignments

Some argue that a good blog post has links to other blogs, websites or documents, but why that has to be the case? If I don’t insert a link somewhere in this post, is it bad? The answer is NO, because what should matter is the content. However, if blogs are framed as a collaborative learning tool, then the answer is yes. The reason for this introductory statement, not related at all with the title of this post, is because I am not going to insert any link, even thought to a certain degree I am supposed to do so, according to suggested blogging guidelines provided at the beginning of the semester. Hopefully you will link my blog somewhere for others to read :).

Before I elaborate further, let me provide the definition of “open” and “guided” assignments for the remaining of this post. “Open” will be used in the context of a task or assignment (e.g. a blog post) for which the content/topic can be decided by the student. A “guided” assignment on the other hand, is the opposite, the topic of the assignment is given.

Definitely there are pros and cons for both scenarios. This post for instance, is the result of an open assignment, I was given no topic to discuss, the only instruction was that it had to be related with Higher Education. Out of the previous 9 posts under the GRAD 5104 category, 5 were guided. Through the semester I found that I enjoyed more writing about whatever I felt like, than when I had to write about a particular topic. I am not entirely sure why, but I guess because of the feeling of being free to explore different avenues. However, I do have to admit that determining what to write about was not necessarily easy. Usually I went to The Chronicle of Higher Education  (ok, one link, but not related with the content, so it does not count), and search for an interesting topic to discuss, and then linked that article to my post as well. This time however, I couldn’t find something really fast, so I decided to be creative and think about a topic, rather than look for one. That is another advantage of “open” assignments, they might force you to think more.

Now, don’t get me wrong, guided assignments are not bad, is just that sometimes you might not enjoy discussing certain topics, even though they are certainly important. I am trying really hard to comment something negative about them, but besides not liking a topic I can’t think of anything else. At the end, I guess I did enjoy writing most of my posts, and if you read through the GEDI F17 category, which were all “guided” assignments, you will probably see that they are written in a slightly different tone to the majority of the GRAD 5104 posts, perhaps the fact of having provocative readings as introduction to the content of each post helped my thought process. Not sure.

But anyways, even if at the end it seems like I didn’t say that much, I just want to let you know that I enjoyed stepping out of my comfort zone and expressing my ideas to the public, even if most of the immediate audience are my classmates, professor and graduate teaching assistant. Perhaps I should actually make a statement about open and guided assignments. I believe both work, but guided assignments might work better when accompanied by introductory materials carefully chosen to help create interest about them. On the other hand, if the objective is for students to discover their own sources and find readings to support a post, then open assignments are a better avenue.

– Carlos F. Mantilla P.



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Internships: degree requirement?

This post is inspired after an assignment question: one thing I believe should change in higher education?

I know it seems like a utopia, for all undergraduate students, independent of their discipline, to complete some sort of internship during their college experience. But don’t you agree with me that seems kind of necessary? After I completed my college degree in Colombia, I was fortunate to already have a job in front of me, partially as a result of my graduation project. But I know that not everyone is able to start right away, and not necessarily for having a bad student record, but perhaps for lack of “professional” experience.

When I moved to the U.S., my first intention was to enroll as an entry-level industrial engineer, which ended up not happening, hence one of the reasons why I came back to school, not a bad turn out… I cannot be 100% sure, but I believe that what mostly hurt me was my lack of experience, since I was not applying to jobs related to my short 6-month appointment in Colombia. Most of the entry-level jobs openings I found, actually had a 0-2 or 0-3 years of experience. And honestly, if I am hiring, I would potentially go with that person with some experience, as long as all other qualifications are also met. This is one of the reasons I believe that internships should be mandatory. Especially to “force” students that otherwise would not consider doing one.

Scott Carlson recently wrote in The Chronicle of Higher Education: “Everyone Agrees on Value of Apprenticeships. The Question Is How to Pay for Them”. Apprenticeships and internships are not the same, but yet the question applies for both cases. What is needed to have an education/industry relationship that will allow all (or at least the majority) of students to gain experience before finishing their college education? With internships, students benefit by learning on the job, not just theory, and industry benefits by being able to train potential future employees on what they “really” need to learn.

So, I don’t have an answer. Perhaps it is a utopia. Instead I have an advice for students: try to seek out for internships, you will not regret it. And to industry: keep finding ways to offer more opportunities for those looking to have them. For now, internships cannot be required to graduate, but seems like a good point to start brainstorming how we can get there.

– Carlos F. Mantilla P.


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Teaching for the first time: classroom management

Classroom management is not only about what happens inside the room. It is not only about fostering an environment of mutual respect. It is not only about reducing the unrelated talking and interruptions. It goes beyond, and seems like it is getting harder to do. Classroom management includes dealing with deadlines and requested extensions, unexplained class skipping when assistance is required, effective communication with students, and basically any other aspect related to the teacher/student and student/student relationship.

As expressed in probably many articles, websites, publications, etc… classrooms are becoming tougher environments, teachers not only have to worry about being knowledgeable on the class topic, but also need to be prepare to deal with the externalities affecting how students perform. I am getting ready to teach next semester as an instructor of record for the first time, and would definitely like to have students as engaged as possible. Hence, I am looking at tools/strategies that I can use to reach the majority of students. I am looking at ways to have an effective classroom management. If you are also in my shoes, or for that time when you get there, or if you have taught before but want to see how you can improve the atmosphere in your classroom. Here are two articles for you to take a look at:

Towards a ‘Positive U’  by Beverley Myatt, MA, and Lynne N. Kennette, PhD … on strategies to foster a positive classroom environment.

Helping students make the right call on cell phones by Pete Burkholder, PhD… on offering extra-credit for surrendering cell phones during class

Of course, there are plenty more out there…

– Carlos F. Mantilla P.



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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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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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Research misconduct: how many more?

There are several cases of research misconduct listed in The Office of Research Integrity (ORI) website, as other members of the Future Professoriate class have pointed out in their blogs, the number is somewhat astonishing. More astonishing is that it does not list all the papers that have been retracted for fraud across all disciplines. While looking at this list, I thought about how many other cases could have gone unnoticed? Or how many will surface in the future? I hope the answer is none. Another question that prompted in my mind was: what drives a “researcher” to fabricate or falsify data? Probably something that others, and you (the reader) questioned as well. Is it money? Is it pressure to publish? Is it anxiety? I don’t know the answer, perhaps it is a combination of multiple circumstances that drive someone to commit fraud.

One of the misconduct cases listed in the ORI website is that of Teresita L. Briones, former Associate Professor in the College of Nursing at Wayne State University. The main factor that impacted me from this case was the number of documents in which data was falsified/fabricated: 5 published papers and 3 grant applications. The date of the publications ranged from 2009 to 2015, which means that this former professor engaged in research malpractice for at least six years. There are no specific details about what caused these papers to be reviewed, but it seems a little “worrying” that the same person was able to publish manipulated material for six years. This prompts to other set of questions: are there tools that could be used to identify fabricated/falsified research material? People that are found to have committed research misconduct are liable for any health, economic or other type of consequences that could have been derived from the fraudulent publications?

In respect to the first question, it seems like the language used in the publication might be one variable to consider[1]. Negative language, lack of clarity and intentions to “hide” or obscure some parts of the paper could be some indicators of potential fraud. In a way, it is the intention of the researcher to avoid being caught what could help to identify misconduct. In relation to the second question, civil monetary penalties are defined under the False Claims Act (FCA)[2] when the fraud affects governmental programs. I did not dig further into non-governmental cases, and in the particular case of Teresita Briones, not sure if there was any liability besides the agreed sanction with the ORI.

[1] Bjorn Carey, Stanford researchers uncover patterns in how scientists lie about their data.



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Two Institutions, Two Missions, Two Countries

As part of the Future Professoriate class assignment, students were asked to find and comment on the mission statements of two higher education institutes. I chose The Universidad Nacional de Colombia, UNAL (Colombia) and Johns Hopkins University, JHU (USA).

Universidad Nacional De Colombia (Colombia)

The UNAL is the largest public University in Colombia, it was first established in Bogota (Colombia’s capital city) in 1867. Currently it has seven more campuses across the country. Their Mission and Vision statements were easy to find under “The University” main menu. The fact that they have Spanish and English versions of their website was actually a great surprise. Although not all the pages are in English, those identifying the University’s core principles and history are. The Mission of the UNAL taken directly from their website on 9/11/2017 is:

The Universidad Nacional de Colombia promotes equal access to the Colombian education system; it provides the largest offering of academic programs and trains competent and socially responsible professionals. It contributes to the development and re-significance of the Nation project; it studies and enriches the cultural, natural and environmental country’s heritage. As it, assists to the scientific, technological, cultural and artistic order, with academic and research autonomy

What I like about the UNAL’s mission is its emphasis on contributing to the project of Colombia, as a nation. Through the multiple academic programs offered, this institution could truly play an important role in the development of the country’s policies and help to shape Colombia’s future. The mission speaks of an interdisciplinary institution, even if the word itself is not included, the UNAL acknowledges the importance of scientific, technological, cultural and artistic contributions.

Johns Hopkins University (USA)

JHU is a research University established in 1876 in the United States. It is a private institution which main campus is in Baltimore, MD, but has spread to three continents with a campus in Italy and another one in China. JHU’s mission has been preserved since it’s foundation in 1876, it reads:

To educate its students and cultivate their capacity for lifelong learning, to foster independent and original research, and to bring the benefits of discovery to the world

In contrast to the UNAL’s mission, JHU’s is “shorter and simpler”, and yet it sounds more powerful and deep. Probably this simplicity is what makes it more easy to assimilate and understand to me. Thinking about it, and without having look at mission statements from other institutions in both countries. The way these statements are written seem to resemble aspects of each culture. To be clear, the UNAL’s mission is very detailed, which is something that I often see in a Colombian. From my perspective, we tend to provide reasons for almost everything. My long explanation here can be taken as an example. On the other side, I have found that people from the United States tend to be more direct, are not use to give explanations and don’t require them either.

So, although my original intent was not to compare them, I have to say that JHU’s mission really embraces what Trout and Rivkin illustrate in their book “The Power of Simplicity: A Management Guide…“, simple solutions and direct messages tend to work better.


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