Let us stay away from prejudgments!

I am a 29-year-old woman from Iran.  As far as I remember, I have witnessed several evidences of “difference seeking” which I want to share with you, as well as my current believes about how to deal with this universal phenomenon, specifically its reflection in educational environments.

Back to Iran, there are barely international communities who live there for long time. While significant number of tourists visit Iranian heritage sites yearly, not many choose to stay as immigrants,  particularly in the past 40 years.  Well, this may bring about a picture of a quite uniform country with quite similar people of the same nation, skin color, culture and history. This is not really the case, though; in facts, driving from north to south and east to west, one meet totally different individuals. Due to modern urbanism,  many people have been moving to  big cities, such as Tehran the capital city of Iran, where suddenly they find new accents, lifestyles and looks.  And then the “difference seeking” engine starts generating prejudgments:  Turks are this, Kurds are that, Balochs are this, Arabs are that, blah blah blah.

During the past four years of my life in the US, I have experienced another level of living in a multicultural country. The appearance differences are substantially significant,  so that not only all Iranians are grouped in one cluster, but also many times people of our neighboring countries are added to our group, and we make a larger cluster called Middle Easterners! And, again, the same story repeats: Whites are this, Blacks are that, Asians are this, Browns are that, blah blah blah. This time, just the prejudgments are applied to larger groups of people with remarkable visual differences, but the essence of such statements are the same:

  • We have a backpack of features specific to each cluster. Simply, whenever we meet a person who looks like a member of that cluster, without having a enough knowledge about his/her background, we assign those feature to that person.
  • We feel excited to share our backpacks with fellow citizens, and make it updated!
  • After a while, we become even more expert and make small bags in our backpacks, e.g. eastern and western Europeans bags inside the Europeans bag.

Academic environments are of the most diverse places where local/international scholars get together. It is definitely very crucial to train students, faculties and staff of such environments to learn more about (1) the “hidden brain” which implicitly generates the above prejudgments, (2) techniques to terminate/dilute these thoughts, (3) polite yet frank dialogues to deal with discriminating conversations. What if we consider the whole community as one organ whose members endeavor to LEARN, and all speak in one language called SCIENCE? Is not it a more respectful, inclusive and effectual alternative?

Grading or not grading: that is the question!

There have been many critiques on the grade-based evaluations among the resources of this week. Alfie Kohn summarizes some negative side effects, and introduces few alternatives– such as replacing letter and number grades with narrative assessments or qualitative summaries of student progress offered in writing or as part of a conversation. Although these scenarios seems like “utopian fantasy” at first glance, I will be explaining a case study which proved to me it is possible to get the most out of students’ potentials without threatening them by grades!

I had a graduate level course last year, with around sixty other graduate fellows from several departments at Virginia Tech including statistics, civil engineering, industrial engineering, physics and computer science. Apparently, this was extremely challenging for the instructor to evaluate the students with these broad background in a fair manner. What he did, was to define quite easy homework assignments to involve everyone in the class and guarantee a big chunk of total grade. The final project, though, was open-end and huge. In groups of five, we were required to have many meetings to brainstorm, design algorithms, code and analyze our results. The professor created groups of people from different majors, and organized many “lighthouse sessions” to answer our questions at high level. More interestingly, he collaborated with a sponsor company which provided free food (!) during a lighthouse session, and also considered monetary gifts for the top three groups. Last but not least, the professor invited Virginia Tech faculties and the experts form the sponsor company during the lighthouse sessions to answer our questions. After a while, what happened was that students were not just working on the project to get a good grade. We were competing to do our bests, as we observed how well the professor did to provide everything for us during the semester. We were all so excited and determined. I remember that the last week we barely slept, and worked extremely hard. Our group was not among the top three, but we all were happy at the end because we truly did our bests during a productive friendly teamwork.

In a nutshell, I highlight the role of teachers in deleting or diluting the grade-based system and replace it with more effective alternatives.

Mindful vs. Mindless Learning: a Case Study

To start with, let us define the meaning of these two keywords: mindfulness and mindlessness. According to “Mindful Learning” by Ellen Langer, “mindfulness is a flexible state of mind in which we are actively engages in the present, noticing new things and sensitive to context”. On the other hand,  when we are mindless we rely on decisions made in the past. As the result, “we are stuck in a single, rigid perspective and oblivious to alternative ways of knowing”.

When it comes to learning, mindful learning is interpreted as an interactive communication between the students and teachers, which engages the students actively thinking about the topic, answering questions, and most importantly asking questions. In contrast, mindless learning pictures teaching as a way to delivering information; therefore, the emphasis is more on what is taught rather than how it is taught. In other words, “mindful learning=active learning”, whereas “mindless learning=passive learning”.

Honestly, I have been a fan of mindless learning for a long while! In particular, when I volunteered to teach an undergraduate course to the computer science major students in summer 2017, I scheduled the semester very heavily to make sure that all the topics are covered and nothing is missed. Although there is nothing wrong with this approach at the first glance, you can imagine how my priorities were geared towards the delivery of information rather than teaching less but more effectively. Interestingly, students did not reflect any issues regarding this approach in their SPOT surveys! This perhaps  implies that this attitude has become a common teaching philosophy, so that students did not recognize it as a drawback.

This semester, I am privileged to develop a graduate course in math/computer science with my advisor. As opposed to me, he put his emphasis on the engagement of students through several lab sessions, projects and presentations. In the beginning, I frowned upon his proposed syllabus, which was very different than the standard ones– those basically cover the major sections of a textbook. Instead, he selected fewer topics but added more hands-on projects and Q&A sessions. Furthermore, his presentations are often made of a few slides containing methodologies and formulas followed by several slides on the real-world examples. Expectedly, students are more involved during the class and follow the topics enthusiastically.

One may argue that an undergraduate course is significantly different than a graduate course in terms of the of the opportunities that the instructor have to customize the syllabus. This is a vey legitimate argument. But, what I am willing to accentuate is the paradigm shift from the conventional easy way of passive teaching to the new and challenging way of active teaching. In my opinion, once this philosophy is set, the courseware to make it happen will flourish accordingly.

 

Video Games as Learning Tools

I met her when we were 18 years old, freshman computer science students full of dreams, questions and of course energy. But she was different.; when we were all working hard on our homework assignments and lacking sleep, shes was playing video games. When we were  all studying hard and getting prepared for the final exams, she was playing video games. When we were celebrating the end of semester, guess what, she was still playing video games!  Kamelia has been a close friend of mine for more than a decade. We spent undergraduate and Masters programs together. I remember the first day of college, when she clarified for all the classmates that ”I chose computer science because I want to become a game developer!”, and she was truly good at it. She worked as a game developer in a company for couple of years after graduation in computer science with a minor in psychology. Later, she started her PhD at the University of Luxembourg working on “Computer Games to Treat Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder”.

Following are what I learned from Kamelia completed with the crux of the posted resources on this topic:

  • Video games != waste of time. From educational point of view, you can potentially learn what you struggle to listen during a class or among the impractical homework assignments, in an entertaining game experience.
  • Video games == problem solving. All video games are sets of problems which the player should solve. Does not this sound like another form of learning?
  • Video games contain “Embedded Assessment”. A good game, in general,  is designed so that its players cannot go to the next level unless they qualify. This certainly removes the conventional test-and-grade system and replaces it with more encouraging play-and-win system.
  • Gaming based therapy programs help cognitive scientists to address learning issues  and ultimately improve mental health. This is particularly beneficial when it comes to children who are less willing to spend time in hospitals and clinics. You may find the related following TEDx talk interesting.

Networked Learning

In this blog I’m going to summarize what I have found interesting in the resources, as well as the reflection of my personal opinions.

What kind of educational experiences change lives?  This is the main question studied from different angels in “Networked Learning as Experiential Learning”. At some point, the author compares the traditional networked learning experiences via hard copy books available in the libraries, with the digital networked computing in the cyberspace. Undoubtedly, the emergence of digital books and later Learning Management Systems (LMS) and related apps has been a paradigm shift in modern education. In my opinion, as we are still learning how to implement the digital educational system effectively, it is important to bolster it with the conventional physical version. For instance, I have always thought that given accessible, inexpensive lightweight Ebooks, they should certainly beat the market . I was totally surprised when I found an opposite trend in “7 Reasons Why Ebook Sales Are Falling–and Print Book Sales Are Rising Again“. One can definitely find similar examples comparing modern LMSs vs. traditional systems, where the latter is mostly based on in-class and face-to-face communications and evaluations. From my point of view, depending on the course subject, students’ age, the level of course and many other factors, keen teachers sought for a good balance between the two modern and traditional forms of course materials to improve the educational experience.

In”Twitter and blogs are not just add-ons to academic research” the author emphasizes the importance of public involvement in academia through social media and blogging. This was an appealing article for me, as I have always overlooked the productive consequence of public engagement in the digital world. It is argued that while many journal articles are merely published to serve the needs of big publishing, it is required for researchers to make use of public channels, e.g., Twitter and blogging , to ENGAGE the readers in academic dialogues. The author believes such virtual conversations simply demonstrate the underlying passion for a subject, and must be publicized to foster the concept of active engagement. He, particularly, encourages early career scholars to expose their research ideas publicly. While they might be afraid of being criticized or see their ideas stolen, the author explains that this is a beneficial resolution in long term to build an audience for their work in the process of doing the work itself. Finally, a very practical tip is proposed which I am eager to try in my future classes: embedding blogs in undergraduate assessment. This sounds like an effective win-win method for undergraduates to improve their academic writing, and for teachers to hear all passive voices and feedbacks.

Three useful ideas to work on the web openly were suggested in the corresponding manifesto: have control over your digital identity, publish your work publicly in a standard format, improve the network effects of your digital work by adding well-structured URLs and tags and applying metadata. In another resource for this assignment, Seth Godin describes blogging as a free functional solution to acquire metacognition of thinking about what you intend to say. He clarifies if you stick with it, regardless of number of your followers, you will good at it and ultimately will be heard.

Last but not least, Dr. Michael Wesch modestly narrates what he learnt from his toddler, George, who endlessly tried to learn how to walk down the stairs. It was absolutely a touching TEDx talk in which the lecturer talked about his journey to get to know his students and their concerns. Spending a lot of time and having one-on-one lunches with his students, Dr. Wesch finally came up with the conclusion that most of them struggle to answer these three principal questions: who am I? what am I going to do? am I going to make it? The speaker presents a novel collaborative model for setting up the course projects which truly impressed me. I am very excited to implement his idea in a future class.

Writing a Winning Teaching Philosophy

 

Teaching philosophy is one of the required documents by all the universities which seek to hire a new professor. Although there are general guidelines to write it down, it is really important to avoid buzzwords and cliches. To this end, here are 4 practical recommendations adopted from [1]:

  1. Discuss what students learn from your class after a semester. How is it beneficial to them? and the world? It is good to extend this discussion in terms of acquiring new knowledge and skills, separately.
  2. Most likely you will be teaching two types of courses: service courses offered by the department, and those courses related to your research expertise. It is a good idea to distinguish between the two which require different objectives and approaches.
  3. Tell a personal story. Walk the readers through your past teaching experience and show them that enlightening moment in the class, or a particular failure which led you to develop a novel teaching methodology.
  4. Acknowledge the inspiring teaching resources: your former beloved teacher, a great book, etc.

Finally, make sure to address these critical questions in your teaching statement: What do you want students to learn? What methods do you employ to help students achieve these objectives? How do you evaluate student learning? Why do you care about teaching?

Good luck!

References:

1- 4 Steps to a Memorable Teaching Philosophy

2- How to Write a Teaching Statement That Stands Out

 

Developing an Effective Research Statement for Faculty Positions

Research statement is one of the important documents in the process of applying for faculty positions, particularly required by research schools. The purpose of it is to showcase your journey in terms of doing research: the past, present and future of your research, in addition to the potential benefits to the community. Research statement is considered as a complementary documents to CV. The latter includes brief description of achievements, projects and essential information such as the name of your schools. Research statement though involves more details about the questions you have in your mind, why they are significant, and your strategies to address them. A winning research statement clarifies the path your research has taken, and where it will take you in the future, and ultimately convinces the search committee that you are a good fit.

One key point in developing an effective research statement is to introduce yourself as a mature competent scientist who aspires to run his/her own academic business independently. It is a fatal mistake to devise the direction of your research plan as a copy of what your current advisor does. The research committee seeks a creative scientist who has a clear short-term and long-term plans. Therefore, you should provide them with a persuasive, reassuring, realistic image of what their life will be like when you are working in their department.

Finally, do not forget to read the samples and observe the range of different approaches that can be taken credibly. It helps you to find your own style of writing.

Good luck!

References:

1- Research Statement Guide

2- Writing a Research Statement For Your Job Application

 

 

Is it Beneficial to Pursue a Postdoc?

 

While getting a doctorate degree is essential to enter professional academic/research job market, it is obscure whether holding a postdoc degree is required or even preferred. In a study [1], 85 percent of the Ph.D. holders stated that this degree is needed in their current job, whereas only 40 percent of the postdoc holders found it either preferred or required.

To start with, it is important to recall that postdoc is just a transition state and cannot be considered as an ultimate career goal. Second, it is hard to generalize the significance of having a postdoc for all the disciplines, e.g. in physics almost all the Ph.D. students end up getting one or even two postdocs, while in computer science graduate students barely end up doing postdoc. Therefore, I would rather merely discuss the pros and cons and let the audience to conclude.

First off, postdocs are absolutely underpaid! In [2] it is discussed that

”A scientific postdoc with a doctoral degree (to be redundant) with 5 years of experience makes ~$4,000 less than the typical librarian and ~$5,000 less than the typical postal carrier.

Now, why a Ph.D. would rather to remain underpaid after receiving the doctoral degree? Many graduate students, especially who plan to become a tenure-track faculty, choose to go for a postdoctoral research position to become more competitive, i.e. by publishing more peer-reviewed papers, applying for transitional grants and gaining teaching experience. However, it is crucial to know that doing postdoc does not necessarily result in all the mentioned achievements. One should definitely apply to join a reputable university and work with an expert professor; otherwise, he/she may not have productive years and lose the chance to compete with the peers. Finally, it is always a good idea to talk to someone who works in your research field and ask whether doing postdoc is a wise choice or not.

References:

1- To Postdoc or Not?

2- Why A Postdoctoral Researcher Position Pays Less Than A Librarian Salary

Future of the University

In recent years, online enrollments in higher education have been growing although overall enrollments in the United States have continued to decline [1]. Interestingly,

79% of all online students and 76% of alumni think that online education is “better than” or “equal to” on-campus education [2].

Given the ever growing number of online courses and material,  a substantial shift in the focus of teaching in the future universities is inevitable.  While in the past it was acceptable for instructors to repeat a set of slides and tests for several years, nowadays students seek up-to-date and pragmatic education. In the present time, one can easily sing up in an online course thought by a proficient professor in a top-rank college and learn the standard lessons for free. Therefore, what graduate students–  who spend considerable amount of time and money in graduate school instead of making money and gaining experience in either academia or industry– look for is beyond the conventional learning objectives. Accordingly, professors should make the nature of projects, tests and assignments more practical.

To this end, I expect to witness a younger generation of faculties in the future universities as well as the senior professors who are still keen to learn new skills and technologies and convey it to their students. Moreover, traditional classes are likely to be totally replaced by online learning platforms, where faculty and students interact most of the time in cyberspace.

 

References:

[1] Changing Students, faculty, and Institutions in the Twenty-First Century

[2] 2018 Online Education Trends Report

[3] The growth of online learning:  How universities must adjust to the new norm

 

 

 

 

Open Access Journal: Nucleic Acid Research

About the Journal

Nucleic Acids Research (NAR) is an open-access peer-reviewed scientific journal published by Oxford University Press. It publishes the results of leading edge research into physical, chemical, biochemical and biological aspects of nucleic acids and proteins involved in nucleic acid metabolism and/or interactions. It enables the rapid publication of papers under the following categories: Chemistry and synthetic biology; Computational biology; Gene regulation, chromatin and epigenetics; Genome integrity, repair and replication; Genomics; Molecular biology; Nucleic acid enzymes; RNA and Structural biology. The journal publishes two yearly special issues, one dedicated to biological databases, published in January since 1993, and the other on biological web servers, published in July since 2003.  According to the Journal Citation Reports, the journal’s 2016 impact factor is 10.162.

NAR’s Open Access Initiative

The advent of online publication has greatly improved access to scientific content on a global scale. This has led to calls from the academic community for research to be made freely available online immediately upon publication, without the barrier of paid subscription to access. In response to these calls, and following consultation with journal contributors, Oxford University Press and the Editors of Nucleic Acids Research (NAR) launched an Open Access initiative for NAR in 2005. This means that it is no longer necessary to hold a subscription in order to read current NAR content online.

There are substantial costs associated with publishing a high quality journal such as NAR, for example in the administration of the editorial process, production of the published version, and development of online functionality. Under a subscription-based model, these costs are primarily covered by charging libraries and individuals for access to the journal’s content. Under NAR’s Open Access model, we aim to cover the costs of publication primarily through a combination of author charges and institutional payments.

The current open access charges are:

  • Author charge (per article) Member institution – £746 / $1455 / €1119 (50% discount)
  • Non-member institution – £1491 / $2909 / €2337.

Under OUP’s existing Developing Countries Initiative, authors based in Free Access countries will have the open access charged waived, and authors based in Reduced Access countries will be charged 50% of the regular open access fee.

The following figure shows the number of NAR submissions received 2002–7. One can see a non-growing trend after 2005 when NAR became fully open accessed. Undoubtedly, the high price of publishing in this journal can be counted as a leading factor.

On the other hand,  according to the table below, NAR has been receiving higher impact factor and more competitive ranking among peer journals since 2005.  Following figure illustrates that while there has been a drop in the growth rate of NAR impact factor, joining open access movement has not stopped NAR to succeed in general.

Resources:

  1. https://academic.oup.com/nar
  2. Manktelow, Emily. “Oxford journals’ adventures in open access.” Learned Publishing 21.3 (2008): 200-208.
  3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nucleic_Acids_Research