I Couldn’t Keep My Attention for this Blog…

This week we are exploring “Attention and Multi-Tasking”. I had different ideas of what to write for the blog, but I couldn’t decide in which to elaborate more about, and in honor to the topic of the week, I decided to share the three threads of thought that came to my mind while reading the different articles.

  1. I remember before I started working in the Puerto Rico Public-Private Partnership Authority (PRP3A). I have had a smartphone for a little while; I mostly used it for my personal email, some internet surfing, and multiple non important applications. Once I connected my smartphone to the work email, it never ended beeping from incoming email. It was like I was never out of the office; I received emails in the middle of the night, during weekends, every time and everywhere… Technology makes us more efficient and helps us organize ourselves better; at least that is what it is supposed to do. At what point is technology making our life’s more complicated, when is it competing with other tasks in our lives?
  2. Now in my PhD I find myself with a similar conundrum but to a lower scale. Now, I find myself bombarded with endless sources of information. Now I have a dissertation topic that I am exploring, other topics related to it that call my attention, and unrelated topics that I want to learn more about or just read. If I see something that calls my attention I open the link, sometimes I have no time to read it and I leave it open for later, or download it as a PDF. As of today I have 291 tabs open in my web browser, I will probably never read all of these articles. I see that I am not alone, as Nicholas Carr mentions.
  3. The internet is an endless source of information; the problem is that it is full of misinformation too. You have to very careful of what you are reading and vetted with several other sources. We as researchers do that, but not everyone does it. We have competing sources of information, it all depends from where we get ours. Recently, I read an article that mentioned that a majority of millennials are getting their political news from social media, and how this can be very troubling. You read mostly what appears in your news feed, and this is predetermined by previous posts that you liked, effectively taking out other news from your possible sources. This is troubling, but not that different to what will happen if you watch a specific TV channel where you know they cover some specific news or from a certain perspective. At the end of the day, we have to learn to parse through different sources of information and use our critical thinking to form our own opinions.

This three threads of thought are different but they have something in common. It all comes down to the idea that technology should be something that helps us to be more efficient; like been able to send an email from anywhere in the world from your cell phone or been able to access information like never before. It all comes to what Clive Thompson says in an interview to Nick Bilton, and my mom told me when I was little and still does: “everything in moderation.”

Diversity: My Perspective

As you may already know, I am from Puerto Rico. A territory of the United States since 1898, at that time we were a colony from Spain. Puerto Ricans are a mix of the native indigenous people of Puerto Rico, the Tainos, Africans, and the Spaniards, we are a mix. All my life I have seen myself as Puerto Rican, not Latino. Now that I am studying in Virginia Tech, I keep seeing myself as Puerto Rican, but now also a Latino. It is interesting as perspectives change.

My graduate program is composed of mostly internationals, for the last three years I have interacted with male and female colleagues from different parts of the world. I have grown immensely, not just from my studies but learning from their different point of views. We benefit from having people with different backgrounds, experiences, and knowledge. Do we have the same benefit in Puerto Rico were in my perspective we are homogeneous, racially speaking? Is race the color of the skin or your ethnic background?

Maybe my perspective is skewed given the way I was raised or the experiences I had while growing up. There is no single simple answer, but if we work together and build upon the experiences and background of different people. We surely could benefit from the best of everyone and keep improving as a nation, but most importantly as human beings.

Under Construction

Last week I had the opportunity of teaching my first class ever. I have to say that I enjoyed it very much! Previously I have been under research assistantships (RA), but last semester I started doing teaching assistantships (TA). Last semester I only went to class and graded assignment and tests, this semester is the same, but I stepped in when the professor could not be present for a day because of a previously scheduled travel. I knew I had to give this class since the beginning of the semester, I did not know how I was going to teach it. I had the slides from the professor, but I could change them and add anything I wanted.

As the time got nearer I got more anxious, I started looking at the slides for this semester, the ones from the previous semester class, and preparing some I wanted to include. I saw first-hand, still, with almost all the materials prepared and having them been handed to me, it was hard to prepare for the class. The venue was an amphitheater with approximately 120 students, this was a challenge because setting up activities and engaging students would have been difficult. I did not want to just lecture and have them staring at me.

I started looking for my voice; I wanted to make the material relatable, for them to make connections to their own lives. I included several activities in the lecture, I lectured for intervals of approximately ten minutes and stopped for the activities, ending with a longer 20 minute activity that allowed me to walk around the classroom and help them more personally if they had doubts. The venue and size of the class not the most conducive for this, but still I believe it worked. I see that I want to be approachable, honest, and knowledgeable about the material I am imparting to my students. I wanted to be the cool professor that made jokes like Sarah E. Deel, but I did not feel comfortable making jokes, so I did not. As Sarah mentions, I did good finding my own voice.

All of this, is from my perspective, it will be interesting to know the students perspectives. I have figured out I really enjoyed the experience; I look forward to more experiences like this. There are things I will change and improve; my teaching voice… is under construction.

Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

Today, in another class we were discussing a current discussion in the engineering education field. What should we focus on teaching, core knowledge or practice/solution of problems? My response was that you cannot have one without the other. You first need to learn the basic concepts before you are able to apply them and find solutions. You need to transfer the knowledge of basic concepts to the students; you could employ different teaching techniques. For Robert Talbert the lecture would not be one of them. He sees lectures as good for “covering material” but “terrible for information transfer.”

I’ll take the role of the devil’s advocate and say that without lectures, how are we going to provide the copious amounts of information for them to ‘learn’ and later be able to apply in problem solving. Talbert says: “Resorting to a lecture because I need to “cover material” is just an admission that I didn’t design my course well. If that’s all the lecture is for, put it online so students can at least pause and rewind.” How do we know we are serving the students well by doing this? Maybe internally motivated students will do this. Will externally motivated students benefit from this? There is a proverb that says: “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.” Certainly, lectures are not a perfect; one size fits all solution for teaching. They are another tool for us to transfer knowledge. There are many other tools that we can employ to motivate students and keep them interested in the topic and wanting to learn more outside the classroom. Like Mark C. Carnes mentions about president Obama in his article, “No one can say that the future president of the Harvard Law Review (and of these United States) was not college material.” Who knows if we are motivating and teaching a future leader of our country, but we are definitely teaching the young minds that will have the future of our country. We should do our best to keep them engaged and effectively transfer knowledge to them.

“C Students: You too, can be president”

Earlier in May, during a commencement speech former president George W. Bush said to the graduating students:

“To those of you who are graduating this afternoon with high honors, awards and distinctions, I say, ‘Well done.’ And as I like to tell the C students: You too, can be president.” (See video)

This blog is not to debate the 43rd US President. I want to elaborate on my thoughts on the matter of grading. Does it work? Does it promote learning? Is it serving the student or the teacher?

I believe I have been a student all my life. My mother still asks me if I didn’t exit my infant stage, in which I asked ‘why?’ every time. I think I can speak for what motivates a student. I have seen students that say I do not care if I get a C, I just want to pass. I have seen students that say, ‘Oh my God, I got a B, I am going to die.’ Does a grade say a student learned the material? I had a professor during my bachelor, that said when he asked about something students should had learn from previous courses that he was using to scaffold into the new knowledge, and not one student answered: ‘crédito aprobado, crédito olvidado’ (in Spanish it rhymes, it means: approved credit, forgotten credit.’ Students are more focused in passing the class, than in learning and cementing knowledge to use later in their other classes or profession. It has happened to me.

During my bachelor degree, I took the courses required in the curriculum that guaranteed that I would of finish and graduate. Now, in a more mature (I believe) stage of my life, pursuing a doctoral degree, I take classes that call my attention that I want to learn from. Most of the time, I am auditing them, no grade involved. I see that I get more immersed in the topics than when I took a required course in order to graduate. But will these be the case with all students? How do we gauge the transfer of knowledge? Is the grade a tool for the teacher to learn how well he disseminated the material? Or is it to know how well the student ‘learned it’? Are the grades forcing students to look inside the box and not explore their creativity and look out of the box? All difficult questions, maybe, with not a single simple answer…

Spaces for Teaching in the 21st Century

Before coming to Virginia Tech (VT) I used to work in a governmental agency in charge of implementing public-private partnerships (P3s) in Puerto Rico. P3s are an option for the government to seek private sector innovation and finance in what typically is publicly procured infrastructure and services. One of the projects in which I worked with was nicknamed “Schools for the 21st Century”. It was an effort to impact academic achievement through the use of infrastructure, providing classrooms that would of promote themselves for collaboration among teachers, motivate student’s creativity, and move the Puerto Rican education system from the industrial age to the creativity age. To bring this project to fruition we needed to interact not only with economists, architects, and other engineers, but with educators.

For years the classrooms were set with desks in rows looking to the front, with the teacher as the source of knowledge. I myself, studied all my life in this type of a setting. With this project we wanted to incorporate different aspects of engineering and architecture that could help teachers teach more effectively. We wanted to incorporate more natural light, studies pointed that having a classroom with more natural light improves the academic performance of students. We separated classrooms with removable walls, allowing the teachers to have separate classrooms for separate classes (let’s say, in one classroom science, in the other art), but giving them the opportunity of opening it and using the space to teach the two sections at the same time (for example; teaching on the Renaissance and Da Vinci, having the opportunity for both teachers to collaborate and teach about science and art.) We wanted to replace the typical chair with a “mini desk” fix into it with desks and chairs that can be configured in different ways to allow for multiple re-configurations of the classroom. The chairs would allow the students to move their backs and not be necessarily in a rigid position during class. These ideas were presented to teachers; some of the interactions with the educators were bittersweet.

Some teachers said they will keep teaching the same way. They said students would become distracted with the clear windows and look outside and that they will not stop moving in the new chairs. They mentioned that they will simply use their classroom how they had been using them in the past. But there was hope; others were exited of the new spaces and possibilities. They mentioned they could implement techniques they had learned in the university, or they had thought of exploring. As Ken Robinson so eloquently expresses in his talk “How to escape education’s Death Valley”, a dessert could look death and without potential, but with the right set of opportunities, just below this deserted surface the seeds of opportunity could bloom.


Connected Learning: My Perspective

The internet and new technological advances are great tools to disseminate knowledge and make it more accessible than ever before. I remember my mom telling me how one of my grandfather’s brother went to Spain to study medicine in the early 20th century. She told me how they waited eagerly for his letters or telegraphs. Now, I am far from home pursuing a doctoral degree in Virginia Tech, but we communicate frequently by phone or video calls (like FaceTime or Skype). She tells me: “now it is easier for moms to have their sons/daughters far away studying”.

This type of technology used in the classroom is one with great potential. It could allow a professor to have an invited speaker from a different country or continent with benefits to both parties. The host does not need to pay for the travel expenses of the speaker and the speaker could continue with his work schedule as usual, just setting aside the time for the virtual lecture. A student could connect to a lecture from another hemisphere; he/she could have access to world class education from his living room. But just having a speaker sit down and talk is not the most effective way in which students will learn about a topic. In my student life (almost all of it) I have seen firsthand different attempts at connected learning. Here I will provide several examples:

  • During my masters we had once a speaker connecting via telephone to a class while someone passed the slides that were sent via email. It was a small classroom, but still it was very difficult to hear and keep track of the material without having someone there physically.
  • Another experience included connecting to another university’s lecture and connecting with several other students around the country to watch the lecture offered in the origin campus. This proved in my perspective an attempt that lost the interest of several of the students in the classroom.
  • Lastly, I have tested several courses offered by Coursera, with different degrees of satisfaction. I have seen courses that have a lecturer speaking with a background of slides and others that are more interactive, displaying different graphics to emphasize different areas and in which the lecturer interacts more with the audience. It could be related to the way in which I learn, but the latter method works better keeping me interested in the topic and making me return to watch more sections of the online class.

People learn in different ways, connected learning is another tool that professors can utilize to disseminate knowledge. With each new attempt, they keep improving their craft. It is up to the new faculty to embrace these technologies and take them to their maximum potential.