“Free” Higher Education

I was reading a couple of weeks ago an article discussing some of the benefits and drawbacks of Europe’s model of free or mostly free education for all (of course I now can’t find the article that I was reading to link to for you all). We have this idealized view of having free education for all students, which I agree would be really nice. However, what is the cost of making that change?

One thing about “free” education is that it is not truly free. It may require higher taxes to fund it. There still may be fees associated with going to higher education institutes. I have even heard the argument that just because people might not have to pay for tuition, students still could go into debt for their education because of having to pay for living costs. This is especially the case if a student choses to attend an institution in a city or country in which their family does not reside. Similar to those of us who move great distances in the U.S. to attend the best institution based on our needs and our interests, the move and living independently can be costly.

In the article I read that now can’t be found, a student was saying how with free tuition, institutions were doing all they could to save costs, including having very large lecture classes. We discuss within GEDI about the benefits of hands-on learning and student centered classrooms. Within these large lecture classes and lecture halls in some of these European institutions, who make the decision for financial reasons, are they using some of the techniques that we have been discussing and applied learning?

I did a short period of high school in Germany, where I attended a Gymnasium (one of the academic high schools). One of my clearest memories of the schools was physics. I had already had this particular lesson in my U.S. high school, but I do remember noting a difference in style of giving the lesson. In my U.S. high school, the students were using this toy car within each group to understand the concept. However, in the school I was attending in Germany, we were in a tiered lecture hall with probably close to 50 students and the teacher was demonstrating the concept using the exact same toy car. We could not try it for ourselves. What she said was the lesson. It will be interesting to see how the classrooms and the teaching styles will be similar or different when we visit different institutions in Switzerland and Italy this summer.

Another thing that has been playing on my mind about free education and a primarily public higher education is how much that will limit the types of schools individuals can choose from. Shortly after the announcement of Sweet Briar’s closing, the president of the college, James Jones, said that the “diversity of American higher education…is changing and becoming more vanilla.” In some ways that is becoming true. If schools are not able to hold on financially and students are not able to afford certain institutions, even if they are a better fit for them, we may slowly have only public institutions where everyone is commuting to the campus. What would that mean for diversity initiatives? Would students from diverse and unique backgrounds be able to afford attending unique institutions? If everyone commutes to campus will they truly be exposed to diverse ideas and people by not living with randomly selected people like many of us have when first entering dorm life in college?

I say all this not because I disagree with making higher education more affordable or even “free”. But I think before we hold anything on a pedestal we should look at it critically and see if there may be drawbacks or additional benefits.

The Four P’s of a Great and Powerful Teacher

For those of you who have paid close attention to my blog or my tweets will have noticed that I love Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education. I have been reading those weekly if not daily since undergrad. It was such a well-known fact about me reading them that the Dean of Students at my undergrad would frequently save the hard copy of the Chronicle that she received for me and I would get it the next time I saw her.

This week there was an article online discussing powerful teachers. It started with the point that recently teaching in higher education has become a much more discussed topic than it once was. That is great and I hope that conversation continues. Isn’t that part of why we are all taking this GEDI course—so that we can discuss and stay on top of the discussion about teaching?

The article then goes on to discuss powerful teachers and what makes people great. One point the author makes is that we all remember certain teachers that were great. That is true—yet I bet if you asked ten people even a year after a course some would rank a teacher as great while others wouldn’t. Again, we can’t all be great for all students. What worked best for me as a student does not necessarily work great for the students I am currently teaching.

Anyways, the author argued that there were four traits or properties that made teachers great and powerful (maybe like the Wizard of Oz?). The four are: Personality, Presence, Preparation, and Passion. Within personality he stated that one should be approachable, professional, funny yet demanding, and comfortable/natural. Some of that goes back to our discussion of authenticity. The second one, presence, he discusses being able to “own” a room, basically referring to being charismatic. This one I have a bit of trouble with because I don’t know that everyone can or should be charismatic. I definitely do not think that I have that characteristic. I am engaged in the classroom when I teach in-person, but I am an awkward person and always have been. I do my best to put that aside, though I think it will always shine through on some level when in front of more than 10 people.

Preparation and Passion I fully agree with. As a student and as an instructor I want and need those around me to be prepared for what we are getting ready to do. I want things laid out logically, or at least as logically as possible. It may make me a workaholic, but I spend many breaks preparing for the next semester, so that when I am in the middle of my own classes and other work, I am not frantically trying to prepare for the course I am teaching. And, admittedly, teaching online helps with that. I also have a great love for my discipline and what I study and teach. Even within my child development course, which is not my main research focus area, I bring in a little bit of what I love and desire within the topic. Though sometimes I worry I do not show my passion or that it does not come across, students actually seem to pick up on it.

Online Testing

Every semester I try and provide an opportunity for my students to give anonymous feedback about how the course is going and make suggestions for changes about halfway through the semester. Not many choose to take part, but it gives them the option to have a voice. Every time I do this I am reminded how as instructors we really cannot please everyone. For example, most like the way I use forums in the course but there are always a few who do not or most who like the structure of the paper assignment and a few who do not. It also shows just how many do not actually read what I provide them with.

I continue to do this exercise to see what needs to be changed for future semesters in addition to seeing if anything could be changed for the current semester. As a newer instructor this is useful information to have midway through the semester.

However, there is one piece of feedback that I am not completely sure what to do with is on how the quizzes are set-up. I teach online, so the quizzes and exam are online. Within my department there is a big push to prevent cheating. So most instructors use the linear format, where students take the quiz one question after the other and without being able to go back. Many also use timed tests, with between 60-90 seconds per question set up. I have done both 60 seconds and 90 seconds, with my current course being 60 seconds per question based on what an advisor instructed me to do. We also do not release the exact questions to students but offer for them to come in and look over the quizzes and tests with us. As graduate student instructors, our hands are frequently tied as to how we set-up a course, and for me, this is one of them.

However, I keep struggling with whether it is the best way to set-up quizzes and tests, especially for online courses. I have had discussions with others in the past about the fact that the timed, linear tests may not be best due to neurodiversity. Though, the scores so far this semester are quite good.

So, how do we allow for differences in learning and testing styles and abilities, while still maintaining the integrity of our courses and tests? Yes, we have an honor code and I am a proponent of that. But, it seems to only go so far. With maintaining the integrity of test questions, I keep coming back to the situation the physics department found itself in last year where test questions were posted online from previous times the course had been taught (Collegiate Times story here). In some ways it comes back to being fair to as many students as possible. That can be by doing our best to insure no cheating, where everyone is on a level playing field that way. Or by being open to diverse abilities. Is there a good balance between allowing for diverse abilities while still trying to prevent cheating?

Common Core Conversation

This week I had an interesting conversation with a classmate in one of my other classes that has continued to be on my mind. It was very interesting in light of the conversations that we have been having the last few weeks. My classmate is an education PhD student who does research on the Common Core curriculum. She is a proponent of the Common Core because the goal of it is to raise the standards for children to have them be college ready. Which, okay, fine, I understand that—there are certain skills that we need to have to succeed in college. However, does everyone have to go to college to succeed?

In part due to this GEDI course and in part due to my own opinions on education, I had trouble understanding the side of the Common Core curriculum. I asked a couple of questions and probed a little bit. At one point in our conversation we got to Montessori schools. She said that the students who were attending Montessori schools are not testing at the same level as the public school children on these standardized, Common Core, tests. My question to that was, “so what?” Why does that matter? The argument to my question was that then these children would not be able to succeed in high school or college—that they would not be able to enter/enroll in some of the schools. It has been three days and I am still bothered by that.

I think in many ways it comes back to the idea that to succeed, we must go to college. It also comes back to the notion that one size fits all, though I know that was not her argument. I have trouble seeing how students learning certain concepts that are necessary in life, like writing skills, have to be done at a certain age in their life. Additionally, how might we teach some of these skills in ways that students can learn them through a multitude of learning styles?

In all of our discussions about standardizations and teaching for the test, I keep coming back to alternative models of education. Some of them we have discussed in class or read about, such as schools that use technology and media. Some of them I have written about before, including Montessori schools. But I also keep thinking about the fact that there is such a movement towards homeschooling in our nation right now—in part due to government spending on education, in part due to the testing culture, religious reasons, etc. Overall, I am fascinated by alternative styles of education and within that, I like to read articles and blogs on homeschooling. There was one article that I came across recently that discusses the fact that so many families who are involved with the tech industry in California are choosing to homeschool their children. These families are using the technologies that they work with and live with to enhance their kids’ educations. However, deeper than that, they are taking education into their own hands because it allows more creativity in how and what they learn. It allows for learning problem solving skills and critical thinking on projects. These are all amazing skills to have, especially in a world where have more entrepreneurs and people who can create such change. All of these alternative methods of education, including Reggio Emilia that my peers have been mentioning on their blogs, are more about the skills that students learn than the facts they can acquire. Skills that are transferrable across disciplines, career paths, life goals are things that we need to focus on helping our students learn as much as making sure they know the so-called facts.

Academy of GTA Excellence

As I mentioned in my “Welcome Back” blog post, there is a new Academy of Graduate Teaching Assistant (GTA) Excellence that the Graduate School developed last fall. It was developed for graduate students to gain more education and training on teaching and learning techniques in addition to recognizing excellent graduate student teaching.

Membership to the academy is for any graduate students and faculty from all Virginia Tech campuses, who are interested in developing and enhancing their teaching and learning knowledge. As graduate students gain experience in teaching and curriculum development, there are additional levels of involvement.

The part that I am most excited about with the development of the academy is developing a larger community of peers to discuss, learn, review and challenge each other on our teaching and learning selves. I think having this network can be beneficial for us all as we move into faculty positions, allowing us to already have a community to challenge and support each other from within similar disciplines and far outside.

Does this sound interesting to you? The Academy of GTA Excellence is having a social and informational session on February 24th from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. at the University Club. We would love to have you there!





Significance and Montessori in Higher Education

This week as we were discussing mindfull learning and anti-teaching I came across this blog post from an instructional designer at Rice University that discusses some cognitive research on children and how they are being taught and what they do with what they are taught. Even though I found the post a few days ago and tweeted about it then, it has still been playing on my mind. What the research boiled down to is that the children who were explained exactly how the toy worked then proceeded to spend less time playing with it. The children/students were not interested in figuring out other ways that it may work or other things that it may do. In the end the direct instruction limited creativity.

The study reminded me of the readings from this week that discussed practicing lessons to the point of overlearning it and mindlessly accepting information. This allows for when individuals come across a challenge, they do not know how to work around it and come up with a solution without repeating the formula they already learned and had repeated dozens of times. When we force students to learn our way of how things work we are limiting their own creativity. We are also limiting how students will find significance and how they may use the information in the future.

These are ideas and conversations that are not only on-going within Virginia Tech and higher education as a whole, they are also ideas that are constantly floating around in my head. As I have mentioned before (or if you dug deep enough in my blog site) I was involved in a MOOC last semester in which Mike Wesch led the discussion about “Why we need a Why”, in which the discussion brought up the idea of significance. At the time I was a few weeks into teaching a new course to me, and blogged about my student’s view of the significance of the course. This semester, now my second semester teaching this course, my students have found other significance in the course. In particular, they see how knowing and understanding how children and adolescents develop will make them better able to understand human processes as they enter into their careers of hospitality management, education, counseling, physical therapy, computer science, etc. My students are finding significance in the course far outside of the significance I would have gotten from it, which is wonderful and potentially one of the benefits of teaching a social science.

Another way that I try and guide them to find significance in the course that can translate outside of this one class is by guiding them on a semester long research paper. Yes, it is relatively structured in that they have certain portions they have to do within a certain time frame, and they are some-what limited to their topics. However, their topics are broad enough, where they can make it their own, such as bullying and gender. Some choose topics because they were already meaningful to them while others choose them based on what they know the least about, and others have chosen some based on what they think will be most useful to them to know about in the future. This paper allows them to read through the research that is out there on these topics, figure out what is most meaningful, and write a coherent paper. I hope that along the way they learn the skills to repeat the process again and be able to read the literature out there on the topic of child and adolescent development.

One of the topic choices that I give my students is on Montessori method of education. For those of you who have never heard of this approach, here is a short history of it. Maria Montessori was an Italian physician in the late 19th/early 20th century, who spent her career researching childhood education up to age 12 (the last age she studied before dying with plans to go further). Within her educational method, children are able to move about the classroom as they wish and choose the work that will be most meaningful to them at the time. The teacher is a facilitator to their learning. The Montessori method is constantly playing on my mind as to how it can relate to higher education. I would love to develop my thoughts on it more as I continue down the path of teaching in higher education. In part, I think it goes back to not limiting the creativity of students, allowing them to find answers for themselves, working on what speaks to them, and finding significance in the work that they are doing.

Conveyer Belt Teaching

I found this while exploring some of the previous semester’s GEDI blogs: I loved reading about someone’s experience as an outsider visiting my alma mater. I love Hollins and to this day I will occasionally go to Roanoke just to knock on the Dean of Student’s door to chat with her about something. I am also one of the alums who provides a lot of volunteer support to the institution.

It is my experience at Hollins that has led me to where I am today. It also is an added challenge for me as an instructor at a school so different from Hollins. As a graduate student who is also an instructor of record, I do not have an office entirely my own to meet with students. All graduate students who teach share a space. Being more physically accessible for students is something I wish I could do. There are so many ways in which I wish I had the chance to connect with students more. I want to see them grow even past the one semester that I have them in my course. I want to be one of the instructors that is accessible to my students, like I had as an undergrad. I am just not completely sure how to do so when I have a new group of 80 students each semester and am teaching online.

I feel like I am not truly getting to know them. I can see their work, but they are staying anonymous. I feel like all I am doing is helping them check off these CLE classes so they can graduate. I am seeing some growth and development throughout the semester, which is good, but I do wonder how much is sticking with them. If they are struggling with something outside of class, or even something that affects their schoolwork, I often have no idea and very little way of helping them once they leave my class. I guess one way to look at it is I am trying to reconcile some of my small, liberal arts school ideals in such a large university. There is the question posed to students as they are looking for which college to attend about whether they want to be relatively anonymous in a large school with large classes or known fully in small classes and even as an instructor I would love to know my students more fully. I am trying to find ways to do so in these large online classes, but am definitely not satisfied with how I am doing with it and probably never will be.

I found this article as I was thinking about a lot of this recently: I also tweeted about this article. The article discusses how students desire instructors, faculty, and administrators to notice them. To have a human connection with them. The author, James Lang, talks about providing plates of knowledge without truly looking at those we are handing the plates to. In some ways, that is the way I feel. But the analogy that I see is more like a conveyer belt. I deliver the goods to the students and help them check this requirement off of their to-do list. But am I actually reaching them? Is what I do and what I require of them making a difference? How am I to know when I never see or hear from them again?

Last semester I participated in Connected Courses, where in conjunction with the international MOOC, a group here at Virginia Tech met regularly to discuss what was being taught and talked about in the bigger MOOC. It was a group of graduate students and faculty who had a special interest in connected courses. It opened my eyes to a lot of pedagogical discussions I had not previously known about. It also allowed me to begin developing a network of other budding professors who share some of the same values in teaching that I do. I left knowing so much more and having so many ideas, yet not completely sure my what next step with these ideas should be. One thing that I am struggling with is how to use technologies for classes that I am not entirely comfortable with. I think that is something that will be slowly developed over the course of my career.

Something that I did come away with, however, is the acknowledgement of how amazing blogs can be to connect you with people far outside your institution and your discipline. I received a response to one of my blog posts ( that I have really taken to heart. I believe the person was from CSU-Chico, so approximately 3000 miles away from my institution. She said that every time she meets with a student she asks them how they are doing. It’s simple, but it can be so powerful. I am not always great at remembering to do that, but in a similar fashion, I think something that we can do is be more mindful in our interactions with students. One thing that I have been trying to do this semester is thanking the students when they e-mail me a question. I am also being a bit more thorough in explaining why I am asking them to do something. How it benefits them, their classmates, and sometimes, how it benefits me. Those two things have already helped to develop connections with students and we are only a week into the semester. I hope that as things become busier in the semester, I can maintain that, as I see the benefit.

Welcome Back!

This semester I will be continuing to maintain this blog. I will be doing it in relation to three different projects and classes I am involved with. The first being the GEDI (Graduate Education Development Institute) course here at Virginia Tech, which discusses pedagogical practices in the 21st century. The second being the Global Perspectives (GPP 2015) study abroad opportunity and seminar. The final being as a part of the new Academy of Graduate Teaching Assistant (GTA) Excellence in which I am a “founding member”.

For those of you who have not read my blogs and are now getting to know me through one of these avenues, here is a little bit about me: I am a third generation academic and the second generation at Virginia Tech. I was born and raised in Blacksburg, and though I see its weaknesses, I still love it. I went to Hollins University in Roanoke and earned my bachelor’s in psychology. It is a small all-women’s liberal arts college where I grew so much and could not have asked for a better undergraduate experience. I then earned my master’s degree in general psychology from University of North Carolina Wilmington. I made some wonderful friends and loved living by the beach (and watching them film TV shows and movies!). Now, I am back in Blacksburg as a PhD student in Human Development with a concentration in Family Studies. My broad research area is in sexual minority (LGBQ+) couples and families.

If you want to know more, ask! I look forward to widening my community and network through this blog and these experiences this year!

“Political Correctness” in the Classroom

VT is the only school who is having a little bit of a firestorm due to ideology. Marquette University, a Jesuit school in Wisconsin, is having a discussion as well about ideology in the classroom and of students.  The story begins with a graduate student teaching a philosophy course and having a post-class discussion on same-sex marriage and whether students have the right with free speech to say homophobic, racist, or sexist comments in class. You can read more about this here and here.

A few weeks later, an associate professor with conservative leanings at the same school, published a blog post about this. He argues that the limiting of free speech is a tactic of liberals, especially by deeming something offensive. He also argues that in the “politically correct world of academia, one is supposed to assume that all victim groups think the same way as leftist professors”.

Overall, this has come to the topic of how much our “political correctness” in the classroom makes students feel like they cannot speak their opinion and that they “stifle their disagreement”. Of course, terms like indoctrination get thrown around as well.

Someone from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) also wrote a post based on this event at Marquette. She argues that those who are educating should “encourage students to voice controversial opinions” and that “students benefit from having their beliefs challenged, being asked to articulate and defend their own views, and being exposed to differing viewpoints.” I have to agree with that, though I definitely have concerns with other parts of the post. Even though I know my ideological biases, if students can critically reflect and think about a topic even when it is different than my own, then that is an important part of our job.

This story, like the one of the Young Americans for Freedom here at Virginia Tech, has been picked up by conservative blogs and news sites.  However, going back to the statement by the FIRE blogger, we need to have these conversations. We need to be critically reflective of our own viewpoints. Yes, I agree with the graduate student at Marquette that we need to do it respectfully and without homophobia, sexist, and racist comments in the classroom. But, I think if we can demonstrate how to have conversations on difficult and controversial topics without attacking any group that is benefitting the students and future society. There is much more to the Marquette debate as there is with the VT debate than we know from the two camps, but these can be the catalyst of discussion.

Diversity Courses

This week the Diversity in a Global Perspective course I am in at Virginia Tech and the Connected Course have complimented each other quite nicely. One thing on Tuesday in Diversity that we were discussing was how to bring diversity discussions and ideas to undergraduate students. This came up in part due to UCLA College of Letters and Science’s decision on Monday to require a diversity course for undergraduates. You can read more about this decision here. One aspect of this is to challenge students to be exposed to ideas, beliefs, and backgrounds that are different from their own.

One challenge we were discussing with a requirement like this is how to get students engaged in the material if they are required to take it. If students do not want to be challenged to think outside of their world view. We are seeing this challenge currently in the Graduate School with the Ethics requirement. Even with graduate students who have to take an ethics component in different ways, including a one-time seminar, we can see the tuning out and lack of interest. People are not willing to be challenged on ethical behavior for themselves or their future students. So, how do we have undergraduate students take a diversity course seriously and see the benefits of it? Sometimes when we teach courses like this and students opt in to them, it turns into a case of constantly preaching to the choir about the importance. In many ways that is the way it is in my graduate level Diversity course.

A peer who is also in both my Diversity course and the Connected Course suggested that we incorporate diversity into every course. This yet again can be challenging depending on the discipline. For example, how can an instructor in engineering introduce diversity into the classroom? Also, are there ways to do it without hitting students over the head with the information, where it feels to them like we are preaching? That might be part of where we are losing them. I typically teach Child and Adolescent Development and Human Sexuality and these courses allow for a lot of diversity to be incorporated in the discourse without students feeling like that is the entire purpose. Yet, there are still a few who resist the discourse of experiences different than their own.

As I was still processing the discussion on Tuesday from the Diversity course, I was watching the webinar from the Connected Course, Making Teaching with Technology Fair and Open. Around the 34 minute mark, my ears perked up because Dr. Nakamura mentioned including diversity into courses. Part of her argument was that we should not design courses where diversity is only covered one day because students will see it as B.S. and will not take the instructor seriously as being important. I thought that was an important point and stemmed well with my peer’s comment from the Diversity course. Maybe we do need to find more and more ways, no matter what our discipline is, to incorporate diverse views and experiences in engaging ways.