Electrifying Education (Part 1): Being There
— Oct 28, 2021
The scarcest commodity in my class is me. I don’t try to make myself scarce. I make it clear to my students that they can always find me by email and that it’s no big deal to fire up a zoom session. But, despite my mastery of digital time and space, I've never managed to be in two places at the same time.
The focus of industrial learning has been to scale the learning experience to accommodate greater numbers of students, so that education was no longer the province of the elite who could afford personalized instruction. Unfortunately, this has been accomplished largely by putting more and more students under the gaze of a single teacher employing a large lecture hall and amplification. We scaled the voice but missed the point that talking is not synonymous with teaching.
I can still remember walking into my first 500 person class at the University of Texas at Austin as freshman there in the 1980s. I was lucky in that class for two reasons. The first was that the professor was a dynamic speaker who introduced interesting concepts about a subject I cared a lot about. The second reason was that I was used to teaching myself instead of relying on someone else to do it for me. At a young age, I developed a love of reading and the fact that my father was a university professor meant that I always had access to excellent university libraries. I gave myself a parallel education from the one I received in “normal“ school. I aced the class.
Fourteen years later, after nine years of higher education and a detour into the tech industry, I walked into my first community college classroom determined to emulate the experience of that very first government class I took at UT. It was a dismal failure. I discovered that almost none of my students shared my love and understanding of learning, no matter how dynamic my performance in front of them was. Most of the students at this urban campus did not know what it meant to educate themselves or why it mattered that they did.
That was almost exactly 20 years ago. I have spent many of the intervening years trying to figure out how to reach those students. This journey has involved treks into pedagogical design, learning space design, and the application of every technological trick in my tool bag.
The gains have been incremental. I have realized considerable efficiencies in the application of creative approaches to teaching and learning. However, my students continue to struggle. There always seem to be a percentage of them that refuse to be reached no matter what I do.
When the pandemic hit, I was teaching one of the more challenging groups of students that I had ever encountered. Now, besides daunting college course material, I had to navigate them through a technological burden that they had not signed up for. My solution was not to continue business as usual, but to lean even more heavily into individualized instruction than before.
Zoom allowed me to meet individually with students in a way that was difficult, if not impossible, in a physical classroom where the best that I could hope for was group interaction. Most community college students do not linger on campus. I can count on one hand the number of times students spontaneously walked into my office hours in any given year.
Most of my students have significant external responsibilities, such as families and jobs, that take up almost all of their non-class time. College is seen as a luxury, a bet on an ephemeral future self that must always take a back seat to present concerns. The pandemic exacerbated the concerns of their present selves as they or their relatives sickened and jobs evaporated or became extremely stressful affairs. To add to the misery, flawed technological systems, which were their only lifeline to the world of learning, often collapsed under the strain.
I was very proud of my success rate in that first semester of remote teaching. After careful analysis, I only found one student that I lost for reasons purely related to remote teaching. I accomplished this feat by meeting individually with every student. I prioritized these meetings over every other synchronous activity. The first question out of my mouth was always, “How are you doing?” It was through this emergency stopgap that I discovered the power in these interactions. Instead of insisting the students come to me, I could meet them where they were and to connect the work that they were doing in the class with what they were going through.
Since then, I have not taught a single course in person. I have made these individual meetings a fixture in my instructional method. I can do this through the power of the technology in my toolbox. These insights have altered even the group meetings where some or all of the class is in Zoom. I started using concept-mapping software like Miro to actively and explicitly connect individual projects and interests to the material of the course. In this way, I can meet the students where they are instead of trying to feed them where I am. (I am feeling some trepidation about next semester when I may be forced to give up these tools and go back to slumming in a classroom.)
Until this point, I have been lucky that all of my classes have been under 18 students. This semester, however, I have two classes with 32 students each. I knew going in that this was going to present a challenge to the teaching models I had developed for remote students. I have a pretty clear idea of how much time and attention I need to give each student. Early on, the class sizes were already impacting group activities within the class. There simply aren’t enough minutes in our scheduled meeting times to reach every student.
This has already led to attrition. Out of over 60 students, only 41 students turned in the second major assignment. Ironically, the class has right-sized itself, but there have been casualties along the way. It should not be surprising that under these circumstances that the most accomplished students will push themselves to the front of the line. Those who never make themselves heard will sit quietly and watch the class slip by.
The only way to manage large groups of students is to talk at them instead of with them. This works with the more accomplished students. A practiced learner can get through my class without ever attending an interactive session. Most of my students don’t fit into that category.
In recent years, several studies of students in distance education have shown a linkage between overall performance and the way the class is taught. They show it is almost impossible to teach the class constructively and reach at-risk students effectively with over 24 students per teacher. As Sandy Baum and Spiros Protopsaltis found in a 2019 study, “Even when overall outcomes are similar for classroom and online courses, students with weak academic preparation and those from low-income and under-represented backgrounds consistently underperform in fully-online environments.”
I can feel those numbers this semester as I struggle to find the time to reach those students that need my help the most. The economics of teacher-student ratio vary wildly from institution to institution. Administrations will argue that trimming class sizes is simply not possible from an economic standpoint. However, the problem may not lie in “class” sizes. Instead, it may lie in a failure to imagine how we might group students in ways that are not based on “butts in seats.” There is no reason that classes still need to meet that outdated industrial standard. If we ever want to get past merely educating the favored few and reach talent that is less favored by circumstance, recognizing the power of individualized instruction is the only realistic pathway. The logistics of instruction are not an excuse.
The digital world offers us new opportunities that bend time and space. Bending time and space provides many opportunities to scale individualized learning. Scaling individualized learning is the only way to create equity for those students being failed by the systems we have created. We can only scale individualized learning by reimagining how we deploy our resources in the service of all of our students, not just those most capable. To do that, we need to look far beyond the classroom itself to the infrastructure that supports its continued primacy in educational philosophy, planning, and execution. Electrifying our analog systems provides opportunities for us to re-examine this paradigm.
Next Up: Electrifying Education (Part II): If Tesla Engineers Designed Instruction