Changing the world vs. becoming a professional.

I remember when I decided to go to school to become an engineer. My passion was to learn how to create things that could change the world and improve the quality of life of the people in my city. I lived in one of the smallest states in a developing country that is the 4th oil producer in the world. While several states were rich in resources and industries, our state had no resources at all. I was sure that becoming an engineer could give me the creativity that I required to create breakthrough technology that could make our state rich and famous. Somehow along the journey my passion for changing the world changed and I became a very good industrial engineer interested in productivity and maximization of profits while minimizing the use of resources in organization. I left my state to work in industry in one of the richest states in the country.

Several years after that I decided to do a MBA my initial plan was to understand as much as possible the business world in order to be able to promote more ethical practices in big organizations. Somehow also along the journey I ended up being a talent manager for one of the biggest multinational companies that by the way is not that good with its ethical practices (although is way better than most of its competitors).

I think there is a serious problem with higher education. Every time I ask my students why they want to be engineers, they all have very interesting reasons: Change the world, develop new sources of sustainable energy, improve water consumption,  create technology that help people around the world to learn how to write and read. However, when I ask senior students their plans as future engineers the responses are always related to make money, have recognition, or just obtain a big job on a very well known company. Somehow we are changing our students passion for what we think is the reality of the job market.

The situation not only apply to engineering, it also applies to business, art, language, and as we have seen medicine.

I don’t think we can dehumanize students. No matter the profession or the reason we are humans we live with emotions and the most we try to repress the emotions the worst we can explote under pressure. With this I’m not saying that we should be bringing every single detail of our lives to our work environment, but for sure we need to recognize what we are and how we feel.

We need more professionals that have empathy and recognize the problems of the world and are able to be sensitive about the issues people can be facing under different circumstances.

One thing we can do to put our two cents is to talk with our students a lot about their feelings, about the different situations that they may face and about how can be ok to deal with the realities of others.

We need a world that is more human, we need more professionals with passion for changing the world!

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Frontiers in Education 2014

 attended the conference “Frontiers in Education FIE2014” and wanted to share part of the conversations that we had with other people interested in education coming from 48 different countries. 

One of the things that was discussed the most was how to promote welcoming and effective learning environments that are appealing to the new generations but that also maintain the development of the required contend knowledge, as well as, the desired skills. 

One thing that was common in different topics and presentations was the use of attractive (or interesting) assignments. I think it was really interesting to see how many investigators from different disciplines, countries, and cultures, were repeating the same thing: “we need to spend some time developing interesting assignments.” It has been demonstrated in several research projects that assignment that are challenging, entertaining, and relate to students interests can be a very strong factor to motivate students in the learning process.

One of the strategies proposed to create effective and attractive assignments it’s the use of gaming. One advantage of developing games so students can “play” when doing their assignments is that they have to discover what it is that they are being assessed, they are not being told what lesson they are responding to, they need to figure it out being able to see the big picture. In addition, students learn that there is a specific goal to learn when playing, that translates in finding the applicability of knowledge to solve a problem rather than memorizing.

Another advantage of using games is that games are fun, people when gaming is more able to be collaborative. They need to work together to solve the game, without collaboration is very complicated to come to a solution, therefore the classroom is more inclusive to minorities.

Finally, another advantage regarding using games as assignments is that students learn that it is ok to fail. Failure sometimes is seen, especially in engineering as a bad thing, or as something to avoid under any circumstance. By gaming, students understand that failure is an option, and can prepare to face it. A lesson that will help them when they need to face the real world.

I invite you to check out this website that have a lot of valuable information regarding how to develop games with pedagogical purposes.

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Pedagogies of inclusion in a non-inclusive classroom

I wanted to share with you how the situation regarding inclusion and diversity is back in my country. In Venezuela, there is no discussion about diversity at all. We don’t have terms like “underrepresented minorities” or “diversity.” I believe one of the reasons is because we don’t have much international exposure. It is very difficult to find families that are coming from another country. In Universities there are no international students. Most of the people have the same religion and even if they don’t, everyone just assume that people will be catholic.

Institutions don’t recognize diversity as an issue; therefore the conversation is out of the table. There are no policies or initiatives to promote the acceptance of people that think and are different. Our main problem regarding inclusion has been the acceptance of women in universities and the workforce, specially, in engineering schools.

I remember one of my best friends was the only female in every class in mechanical engineering when I was in college. I took a calculus class with her and after the midterm our professor brought the test results and read out loud her grade; she got a 37 out of 100. He not only made her grade public but also told her, in front of a full classroom that she didn’t belong there, that engineering was a profession for men. Situations like that were very common in our classrooms when I was a student. Although the situation has improved a little bit in the last years, because of the successful roles and positions that different women have obtained in the last decade, still there is not an accepted open discussion in administrators or faculty members that this is a problem.

Another very concerning problem regarding diversity and inclusion back in Venezuela is about the acceptance of LGBT’s. After I got tenure I started to openly and loudly discuss issues regarding LGBT acceptance. Soon enough I started receiving pressure by the authorities of the university to avoid talking about a topic that was still taboo. People started to avoid me and some members of the university were aggressive because of my position. It was impossible for them to understand how a straight married professor with a son could be trying to fight for rights of a community that “didn’t exist.”

What was more rewarding was that after being the person that was not afraid to talk out loud about sensitive issues, I started receiving uncountable number of students in my office to come out and was able to help them somehow with their problems (sometimes they just needed to be listened and recognized as who they really are). Even one of my best friends, another faculty member that is gay, was not able to come out in the university because he was afraid his career could be affected.

It was very sad to deal with all this people that is continuously acting and being a person they are not just because a “macho” culture don’t accept that people is different or because they are not able to accept and tolerate other points of view.

How can we create pedagogies of inclusion in classrooms where the problem is not even recognized by the University? Any suggestions?

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Dr. Humphreys’ case for General Education

I had the opportunity to assist last week to the event: “The Economic and Civic case for General Education” by Dr. Debra Humphreys, I thought it would be beneficial to post about some of the information she provided.

One of the things she emphasized was on how General Education (GE) is an effort that not only should involve administrators. She thinks communication is a key factor in this change. In every University around the country, despite they are into the GE reform or not there are a lot of faculty members creating effective and engaging learning environments, however, those messages are not being amplified enough. One of the principles behind GE is not only to provide students with different perspectives about things, but to provide them with quality education where they have the motivation to learn things that interest them. As she affirmed: “Education is a social enterprise where educators and students need to work together to make it good.”

Another interesting thing that she mentioned was the need for students to understand the big picture. Students need to answer the question “Why am I in college?”, and “how college will change my life?” In most cases students have misperceptions because they don’t quite understand the essence of attending to college. For example, students think that having a major is the same as having a career, that college means 4 years of learning everything they need to learn in their field and they are ready to the real world and won’t need to learn anymore, that college is the magic road to find a good job and make money.  It is important that students understand, even before they arrive to college, that it is about the experience of learning how to learn. It is about shaping and developing different skills that will help them adapt to a professional environment, is where they learn how to find useful information and to develop their own criteria to judge what useful information is. College then will not be a magic place where they will obtain all the answers, but where they will learn how to continuously look for them.

Finally, she argues that liberal education is important to every student because (I) is very likely that students will change jobs multiple times, so they need the experience of dealing with different people under different contexts, and (II) it introduce multiple perspectives that help students develop their own critical thinking, creativity, and acceptance to interdisciplinary collaboration.


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Impact of non-tenured faculty in students

Recently I was reading an article from Adrianna Kezar on the great divide between non-tenure-track and tenure-track faculty members. She argues that both academics have two different worlds.

Tenure-track have different resources to do research, to improve their development, to implement new pedagogies (I don’t agree with this 100%) and to be involved in a series of reforms to improve student success, engagement, completion, and learning.

In the other world, non-tenure-track, don’t have the time, the motivation, or the monetary benefit to participate in those initiatives. Non-tenure-track faculty members have different titles and working conditions, they can be part-time, full-time, they can be hired to teach one class one semester. Some of them work teaching several classes in the same university, some of them teach several classes in different universities, some others have a full-time job and teach only one class just for fun or particular interest.

Most non-tenure-track don’t serve in committees, are not required to have a presence in campus, most of them don’t even have office hours (because they don’t have an office). Most of them are excluded from the conversations about curricular change, they don’t participate in pedagogical initiatives that some others may have to improve teaching, they don’t take part on assessment initiatives to evaluate engagement on the learning community. Some times (especially in engineering) they don’t even participate in the design of tests, assignments, or homework.

I consider that Universities lack a support structure for non-tenure-track faculty members, I think something needs to be done to involve them in all the activities required to be effective in academia, they need to be motivated, because the reality is that now they are the majority, and according to most experts the tendency is not going to change, in fact, some authors argue that their majority will increase in the years to come.

Here at VT for the Fall 2013 we had 1393 tenure-track instructional faculty members and 1541 non-tenure-track faculty members. More than half of our courses are being taught by teachers that don’t have a motivation to be there in most cases.

I invite you to see this website from the Chronicle, “In Academe, the future is part-time” and watch the videos.

After you graduate, have you consider working as a faculty member part-time?

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Addressing the smarty in the classroom

Some times we have a person in class that wants to demonstrate that they have all the answers. I had experienced it and I would like to share my insights from it. First, it is important to recognize that every situation is different and that context matters a lot. Also, is important to understand that things that may work for me may not work for other instructors. However, I believe that my experience can help someone else that goes through a similar situation.

In Venezuela and Colombia, you can be a tenure faculty member having only a masters degree and some industry experience, in those countries it is not that common that people go after graduate school, specially at a master level. After receiving my master degree in industrial engineering I was presented with the opportunity to teach a graduate class in consumer behavior in the University of Santander in Colombia. I felt it was a great opportunity and I spent a lot of time preparing my first graduate course.

The week before classes started I had a meeting with the Department Head, he wanted to discuss with me a problem with course. For the class there was a student registered that they considered to be problematic. The student was a retired CEO from a very famous company that decided to go back to school just to have fun and to do something in his boring days. He has had issues with most of the professors in the master program because he felt like they weren’t prepared, they were too inexperienced, or simply because he felt he knew better. At that point the department head was warning me about it because he was sure that the student will have an issue with me (younger faculty member in the entire University, teaching a graduate class being only 26 years old).

I was really scared about that specially because they warned me about the student but no one gave me any advice on how to deal with the situation. Thankfully my mom (who has been in pedagogy for her entire life) gave me a very valuable advice. She told me you don’t need to confront him, you don’t need to exclude him, you need to work with him, recognize that he is there, and include his experience as much as possible.

I did it since day one. I was able to arrive early and I recognized him right away, we had some time before the class started so I engage in informal conversation with the 3 students there, asking about their background. He told me he was retired and work for 40 years in that company and I let him know that his experiences will help us a lot to contextualize the class and provide with real world examples.

The first class was not an easy one, he asked really difficult questions, but somehow I was able to follow my mother advice. I didn’t confront him I demonstrated that his points of view were really interesting (and they really were) and some times when I used an example or explained a basic concept I asked the audience if they thought that is how happens in real life, most of the time he was answering those questions. At some point during the semester he felt not only involved but really motivated to participate and go further. To the point that he took us to his old company for an industrial tour and we were able to see some of the topics discussed in the class in real time.

That student not only became a great team player in that course but also a good professional acquaintance. We still after almost ten years of that class keep communication and are always discussing interesting things happening in the consumer behavior world.

Sometimes, the smarty student just need a little recognition and instead of closing them the doors I believe we need to open them as much as possible.

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Students without passion

In one of my classes an assistant professor from a basic science department at VT came to talk about his experiences as being a young faculty member. I found his talk really interesting and there were some things that I wanted to share.

We had a discussion about how the University is trying to give some steps in changing the curriculum. For example they are trying to let the students make more decisions regarding on how to do their study plan. Some faculty members and administrators are arguing (and I agree) that students should try to get some minors in things completely opposite to their main major. For example, some students majoring in engineering are minoring in music. By doing so they are able to understand complex problems differently, they are more creative, and they are more sensible to accept and understand people from different backgrounds. In the business world that may translate in improving teamwork, communication, and leadership skills (desired in most fields).

He mentioned that based on that premise, and a motivation book he was reading (Drive by Daniel Pink), he decided to test his students with the theory that people doing things that they love may be able to learn more. His project was to let students (in teams) to do whatever they feel passionate for, and grade themselves on it. The grade was I believe 20% of the course grade and he let them get away with whatever grade they decide. His first shocking moment about the project was that the day teams were presenting their projects what most of the teams did was a literature review on a topic related to the class and a power point presentation about it. The second impacting moment was that students were grading themselves on grades that were lower to what he was expecting (a lot of students on the B range).

He was very frustrated with the first impressions of the project because realized that we may be affecting our students in our current system, even when we let them do what they want, they will find a way to do whatever they think may satisfy the instructors. In addition, he felt students undervalued their own work and didn’t have confidence in what they did.

The following semester, he had to obligate them to do something they were passionate about and not related to the class or the program. He found out that most students didn’t have a passion. Most of them were focused 100% in their classes. After he was able to finally get some students doing a lot of random different project he was able to formally assess the effectiveness of the project and demonstrate that the project helped students develop the desired learning outcomes.

In conclusion, I think it is very important to learn things outside our own fields, I also think that informal learning and out of the classroom experiences are extremely important to students in their professional formation. I applaud the idea of letting students create their own curriculum, I wish all my engineering students were taken more art classes. And I look forward to implement a similar project in one of my classes.

If you want to learn more about Daniel Pink this is a link to his Tedtalk

Daniel Pink TedTalk

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How to kill a learning community with norm-referenced grading systems

Maybe some of you are familiar with norm-referenced grading systems, however I wasn’t. In my country there is nothing similar at any educational level. If you don’t know about it here is a quick link:

Apparently this system is used commonly around the US in several universities, especially in Law and Medicine schools. I became familiar with the method because in one of my classes surprisingly enough there were some people advocating for the effectiveness of this method to identify the best students in a particular course.

My first thought was how this grading system can negatively affect the creation of a learning community. I don’t see how having students competing against each other to see who is the “best” student based on a grade can be beneficial for the learning environment.

We have discussed about how important is to create a learning community to generate knowledge and part of that is to be able to see other participants in the classroom as your allies. We need to be able to trust each other, to discuss interesting things, to critique each other, and even to have casual conversations about whatever is happening in our lives. That is how communities are build.

I don’t like the method! Is there anyone out there that may help me understand the benefit of this system? have any of you been graded with a system like that? how did you feel?

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Learner-centered teaching and resistance to change

One of the things that impacted me the most about “The role of the teacher” chapter in Maryellen Weimer’s book was how faculty reported to be devoting 83% of their class time to lecture. This is very disturbing for me because in my experience I know in business and engineering schools the number can be worst. I think discussions about what needs to change in our role as instructors are more necessary.

For example, we are in a class about effective pedagogical strategies and I would say everyone in the classroom is there because they want to be better teachers (it may not be true but I’m an optimist), I will assume everyone want to improve they way they teach, improve the way they develop learning environments, and improve the way they connect with their students. Yet, sometimes a feel a lot of resistance in our discussions about the implementation of new strategies. I feel like even in a space created for talking about change of the traditional educational model, there is a lot of resistance and justification about the few effective things that the old model have.

I can totally understand some concerns about changing the system too much and providing too much power to students in their process that can impede obtaining the learning theoretical outcomes required to success in their professions. However, I think if we are effective creating an attractive learning environment the students will be able to understand what they need to learn and motivate themselves to learn it.

I think motivation is a key word in this situation. All the metaphors  presented in the chapter about how to become a learner-centered teacher relate at some point to motivation. When we are able to motivate students to engage in their learning we may change the system enough and still obtain the desired learning outcomes. I’m not saying is an easy task but I believe it can be possible.

Just to give an example, one of the faculty members of my department spent some time working as a post-doc in Australia. In the University he was working faculty members are really into learner-center strategies and innovative pedagogies. They decided to do an experiment. They gave a project to senior civil engineering students and the same project was provided to freshman civil engineering students. The project consisted of a solution very much needed for the public transportation system in the city. Students were trying to solve a real problem and the best projects were going to be presented to the city council to be implemented. The difference was that senior students had a lot of guidance and specific instructions as part of their capstone design experience, freshman participated in the project with a Problem-based learning approach. They received almost none instruction or guidelines, they only had some faculty members available for answering questions, and usually the answers they received were more questions.

Long history short, the best projects were presented by freshman, faculty members were amazed by the level of technical detail presented in those projects considering they hadn’t taken any technical class at that point. Furthermore, they learnt a lot of theories required in civil engineering on their own. I don’t know what their motivation was but for sure they decided to be the owners of their own learning and demonstrated the ability to accomplish a complex technical project.

With all this I’m not saying that technical courses are not necessary, or that we should drastically change the higher education system and implement PBL everywhere. I’m just saying is possible to motivate students enough to learn the desired learning outcomes in the way they find more effective just with the correct guidance.

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Quest to learn: the digital school

After watching the PBS documentary (PBS documentary: DIGITAL MEDIA – NEW LEARNERS OF THE 21ST CENTURY) about how different schools are adapting their teaching practices to the globalized technology savvy learners of this century – and considering that I am the father of a very curious five years old boy – I feel fascinated on how different teachers are disrupting the traditional classroom and adapting their practice to appeal to the newer generations.

I was particularly interested on the Quest to learn middle and high school in New York City (Quest to learn middle school), I think not only is very impressive the things they do regarding instructional design, learning environments, and curriculum development, but also how those kids are able to recognize the process they are going through. They were using fancy words like: system-based learning, hands-on projects, trial and error, learning through games. For me, that was the most impacting thing. Those kids are self-reporting that they are going under a process of learning that is different, effective, and fun. I believe that just for the fact that they are recognizing and giving such important to the process, they are becoming life-long learners. They will be able to learn from every situation because they were able to make the connection that learning can be also fun, and I think that is magical.

As someone on the video mentioned: “To be a lifelong learner is more important to understand the process of learning than to learn content”

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