Technology, Give Me Back My Attention!!!!

When it comes to multitasking, I have always known that it is not a thing, at least not for me. When I want to focus on my work, I always prefer to be in a calm quiet space where I can concentrate. Working while having distractions such as music or tv are reserved for easy and boring tasks that do not require my full concentration. However, something that has recently plagued me is my inability to do nothing. Ironically, I find it hard to concentrate when reading long articles or when sitting in class, yet at every moment during my day I must pay attention to something. Let me clarify, as soon as I wake up, I find myself having breakfast while watching some random YouTube video. While on the bus heading to the university, I will be looking at social media and listening to music. Whenever I have free time from my work, I will be on some platform or randomly browsing the web for stuff I don’t need. It’s like I lost the ability to just sit, relax, and do nothing. Although at first glance this seems benign, this behavior is very weird and wasteful especially since I have basically no recollection of most of the stuff I go through.

Having read the first chapter of Clive Thompson’s “Smarter Than You Think” book. I definitely agree that working in tandem with technology has made us much more productive and smarter (Although his example of how humans team up with a machine to play better chess than the machine itself does not hold anymore these days). Personally, working in a field such as robotics, I could not manage without technology on my side, from browsing journals, to solving long equations, to creating complicated simulations …  In this context, technology is my best friend. However, technology has consumed all my attention, in both good and bad ways. So where should the line be drawn? Is centering one’s life around technology become the new standard of living? Or is it simply the case that I have a weak will power when it comes to restricting myself from using technology?

I am not completely sure whether this problem is unique to me or shared by others. If I were to guess, I am pretty sure a lot of people are going through the same thing. On this note, I would like to turn it over to you and hear our thoughts on this matter.



My Experience with Adapting Teaching to Different Cultures

Although I have never had a classroom teaching experience, I was a private tutor for around five years in my undergrad, and a GTA responsible for a circuits/electronics help group during my first year at tech. Even though my teaching style never changed, I quickly realized that I had to tweak how I interact with students to cater for my new and more diverse audience.

As most Lebanese people, i tend to be very sarcastic in my daily life interactions. And during my run as a private tutor, I always used sarcasm to entertain and create a bond with my students. This approach was very successful and students responded well, especially since most, if not all, of them where middle to high school boys who had the tendency to be mischievous. I could always capture their attention for around 2 hours, but at the cost of spending the better part of around 30 min discussing random off-topic  issues. All in all my approach was successful, leading to improvement in my student’s understanding of the material.

Now lets jump to when i started my GTA here at Tech. I was quite confident in my approach, and, as expected, many students were able to relate with my friendly and sarcastic personality. However, others did not. I ended up with a group of students who specifically waited for my help, and others that completely avoided me. At first this phenomenon was pretty strange to me, I
wasn’t sure exactly what was happening. However,  after a while, i started to notice the dumbfound faces of students each time I gave a sarcastic remark. I have to admit, it took me a while to realize that people were misinterpreting me, especially because i come form a country where sarcasm is so deeply rooted in society, it has become second nature. After this realization, I had to change my interaction approach. Primarily, I tried to tone down my sarcasm until i figured out how much the student I am currently helping would appreciate. After all my purpose is to help all student, not just the ones that can relate to my character.

As a closing remark, I am always true to my self, I never completely changed my interaction approach, rather I adapted my interactions to my audience. I tried to find a balance between the way I want to interact with people and the way people want to be interacted with.

Don’t Judge a book by its cover, but still!!

I have to admit that before reading the article “The Case Against Grades” I was extremely biased. As soon as I read the title, I directly knew what to do next:
read the article, bash the article every chance i get, criticize the article in my blog. However, i quickly realized that the author Alfie Kohn is making very good points, and looking back on my own education, i have been the victim of many downsides of grading which include:

>Diminishing students’ interest in whatever they’re learning.
>Creating a preference for the easiest possible task
>Reducing the quality of students’ thinking
>Increasing the levels of cheating

However, as much as i do agree with these points, I still think grading is necessary, at least in advanced levels of education. I definitely see how letting go of grades for children can enhance the learning experience, i mean giving a 7 year old an F isn’t really helping anyone. However, i would definitely feel more comfortable knowing that my surgeon can identify every single organ in my body, or that the pilot knows what the big red button does. Don’t take the previous examples too literally, but try to see the underlying point. If no grading exists how can we differentiate between people who are qualified and people who are not. The article suggest personalized feedback, or meaningful assessment, but once other people have access to these assessment this becomes another way of grading, basically all we end up doing is manipulating semantics. If i know that a professor is going to be writing my recommendation letter, i will naturally tend to put much more effort toward his work, and less towards other’s work. If this sounds familiar, well its similar to what grading does to people.

At the end of the day i don’t think we are stuck with only one of two options: keep grading as is or completely get rid of it. We should focus on reducing the harm caused by grading, but at the same time acknowledge that grading does still have the benefit of at least giving a perspective of a person’s qualifications ( again i agree that qualifications are not entirely based on grades). I will end by saying that a person can be passionate about a career, but passion does not translate into competence.



Why is Gaming So Enjoyable, Yet Studying is So Hard?

Anyone who has played video games knows that gaming is not easy. In fact, I would go as far as to argue that to become a professional gamer requires the same amount of effort needed for a graduate degree. However, I have always found gaming to be highly entertaining, and studying not so much. so why is that exactly?

I think the first, and most important, aspect that differentiates gaming from studying is the positive annotation attached to gaming. To explain this point, I will use the example of reading. To many, this is a very nice and enjoyable way to spend time, however, I never could associate reading with fun because of all the reading assignments I had to do in school. Gaming has always been about having a good time, even though in many cases it can be frustratingly hard, while studying always relates to long hours of boredom, even though the material is interesting.

Second, comes the stakes associated with each activity. If you lose in a video game you can always restart and improve, however, if you fail the test you might not have a chance to make it up. This allows people to enjoy the game and learn on their own pace rather than having to worry and grind to pass a test.

The third and final point I would like to make is instant gratification. I know this is a controversial point and probably a counter argument to gaming but hear me out. Each time I’m facing a tough problem I can’t solve or fail at a task at hand it always makes me feel better when I open a game and crush everybody else. Studying is associated with a long-term plan and often one does not reap the fruits of his education until years to come. This makes justifying studying that much harder especially when bombarded by assignments and exams.

On a closing note, I don’t expect studying to be as fun as gaming, nor do I think it should be. Gaming can be a great way to blow off some steam while studying to build your future.

Is the College Education System Really Broken?

Let me begin by saying that during my undergrad I was the type of student that found most lectures boring, could not pay attention for more than a couple of minutes at a time, cared a lot about my grades and much less about learning, and skipped most of the classes when I could get away with it. That being said, I still think I got a really good education, a solid grasp of my domain, and even enjoyed some of the classes I took; else I would not have chosen to pursue a Ph.D. in the same discipline. The reason for that is that I interpreted courses as a path that leads me to my goal, and not my actual goal.

The first issue I would like to point out which makes the college (I am strictly talking about college here) education system seem broken is the lack of proper guidance that students receive before picking their majors. I know from personal experience and from observing the people around me that the majority of students rarely pick a major based on passion or interest, and when asked why they have chosen to pursue their major, the most prevalent answers were “Why not” and “The market demands it”. With people making such choices why does it come as a surprise that most students want to survive through their education? If a student is passionate about his major, sitting through 3 to 4 years of college is a very small sacrifice that will yield dividends in the coming 30 to 40 years of work. My point is, in many cases in many cases, guiding people towards a major that suits them is a better solution as compared to making courses more “barrable”.

The second point I would like to touch on is that yes, the education system is not perfect, but with the current economy of scale it’s very hard to come up with a system that is both better for students and scalable. How is it possible for a professor to interact with students at a personal level when the class has a 100+ students? You might say that a class should not contain that many students and I agree, but again I come back to the issue of scale, when 10000 students apply for one specific major, the university hast to either reject most of them  (you can’t do that) or hire more professors (not a very financially sound decision for the university).

Thirdly and finally, I would like to address Dr. Michael Wesch’s  Ted-Ex video in which he introduces the concept of going through a class using a stairs approach where students help each other and are motivated to work to reach a goal. Even though this approach might have worked in a particular case and in a particular environment, I think such approaches will fail when applied to groups of scale. Particularly, concepts like “students helping each other” are more likely interpreted as an open invitation to cheating as opposed to an opportunity to learn from each other.

To wrap up, is the college education system perfect? Definitely not, I can point out so many things that are current being done wrong, but overall is it broken? I don’t think that either. I think that the way our current society works has forced the education system along its current trajectory and instead of trying to fix the education system, I would suggest looking at why the education system got to this point in the first place, fix those core problems, then try to fix the current problem which is a consequence rather than the cause.

Disclaimer: If you made it all the way congrats :). I know my ideas are all other the place but hopefully ill get better at this.