Passing the Piazza

Reading time: 2 minutes
Piazza (Q&A platform)
Piazza (Image via Wikipedia)

In his article Sunday in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Jeffrey Young comments:

[Pooja] Sankar, a recent graduate of Stanford University’s M.B.A. program, leads a start-up focused on finding a better way for college students to ask questions about course materials and assignments online. Her company, Piazza, has built an online study hall where professors and teaching assistants can easily monitor questions and encourage students who understand the material to help their peers.

At first blush, the service seems unnecessary. Students can already e-mail questions to professors or fellow students, and most colleges already own course-management systems like Blackboard that include discussion features. But Ms. Sankar feels that such options are clunky. She says professors are finding that Piazza can save them hours each week by allowing them to post answers to a single online forum rather than handle a scattershot of student e-mails.

Piazza is a Web site that refreshes with updates as new questions or answers come in. Professors simply set up a free discussion area for their course on the service at the beginning of the term and invite their students to set up free accounts to participate. Ms. Sankar says that students typically keep Piazza open on their screens as they work on homework, often staying on the site for hours at a time.

For more information, including a Piazza tour and demonstration version, see here.

Harvard Conference on Learning and Teaching

Reading time: 2 minutes
di Pietro, "The Saint Teaching Rhetoric"
Nicolo di Pietro, "The Saint Teaching Rhetoric" (Image via Wikipedia)

In an article this past Sunday in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Dan Berrett digests the results of a recent conference at Harvard University about learning and teaching. The article contains several insightful observations, but in one key paragraph of his article, Berrett summarizes:

[Effective pedagogical] approaches . . . demand much more of students and faculty. Students should be made to grapple with the material and receive authentic and explicit practice in thinking like an expert. . . . Faculty . . . need to provide timely and specific feedback, and move beyond lectures in which students can sit passively receiving information. (underlining added)

That is, critical thinking and interaction play a highly significant role in education. Perhaps not surprisingly, this sentiment and a good deal else in Berrett’s report is, to varying degrees, an exercise in higher education’s own remembering and reminding itself of what it has forgotten from the University’s earlier history (Sayers, “The Lost Tools of Learning”; cf. “Reengineering Higher Education”; Woods, “Learning by Way of Conversation”).

Online Education in the Chronicle

Reading time: < 1 minutes

Yesterday’s review of the Chronicle of Higher Education collects several interesting articles about distance learning. Among the open-access articles listed are:

Although potential gains need to be weighed especially carefully in relation to potential losses in some of the applications Bruff describes (e.g., “Back channels”), from this list, Bruff’s thoughts about employing collaborative technologies seemed especially intriguing.

Reengineering Higher Education

Reading time: 3 minutes

Over at the Chronicle of Higher Education, Jeffrey Selingo discusses what might change in higher education if engineers were assigned to reinvent it from the ground up. Some points that emerged at a recent kick-off event for Georgia Tech’s Center for 21st Century Universities were:

Public research on the common questions. One way for public universities to reassert their relevance is to focus on public research on big common questions facing society. . . .

Improve social engagement. So-called softer skills are more important than ever as technology limits face-to-face interaction. Figure out ways to embed leadership, social, and global skills in everyday curricula.

Interactive learning. Remove teachers from being the center of all knowledge. Learning no longer happens with the teacher in front of a roomful of students taking notes. Find richer, more active ways of learning.

Stop teaching subjects. Teach students how to diagnose problems starting in kindergarten and then give them the knowledge to get better at it. Helping students solve problems teaches them how to think.

Perugia, Fontana Maggiore, Retorica
Perugia, Fontana Maggiore, Retorica

Perhaps most striking about these ideas is how very much they sound like Dorothy Sayer’s 1947 proposal at Oxford University’s Vacation Course in Education, “The Lost Tools of Learning.” There, to address contemporary difficulties, Sayers suggested a revival of the medieval educational model:

Is not the great defect of our education to-day—a defect traceable through all the disquieting symptoms of trouble that I have mentioned—that although we often succeed in teaching our pupils “subjects,” we fail lamentably on the whole in teaching them how to think? . . . [By contrast, in] the mediaeval scheme of education—the syllabus of the Schools[, t]he syllabus was divided into two parts; the Trivium and Quadrivium. . . . [The Trivium] consisted of three parts: Grammar, Dialectic, and Rhetoric, in that order.

Now the first thing we notice is that two at any rate of these “subjects” are not what we should call “subjects” at all: they are only methods of dealing with subjects. Grammar, indeed, is a “subject” in the sense that it does mean definitely learning a language. . . . But language itself is simply the medium in which thought is expressed. The whole of the Trivium was, in fact, intended to teach the pupil the proper use of the tools of learning, before he began to apply them to “subjects” at all. . . . At the end of [the pupil’s] course, he was required to compose a thesis upon some theme set by his masters or chosen by himself, and afterwards to defend his thesis against the criticism of the faculty[,] . . . those who had already run the gauntlet of debate, or [those who] were making ready to run it. (¶¶ 22–25; underlining added)

Perhaps, in the end, the best way forward for higher education is, indeed, to go backward and to look at “liberal arts education” not primarily as a way of collecting a broad range of topics together into particular degree programs but as a holistic pedagogical approach for helping people learn “how to learn for themselves” (Sayers, ¶59). Ad fontes.

On Academic Humility

Reading time: 3 minutes
Septem artes liberales from "Hortus delic...
Image via Wikipedia

James Garland has an insightful article, “The Value of Humility in Academe (No Kidding)” at the Chronicle of Higher Education. In part, Garland comments:

The seminal moment [in encouraging my own academic hubris] came . . . when, having stumbled out of an impossibly difficult physics exam, I noticed a wall of portraits of former Princeton physics majors who had won Nobel Prizes. Nothing like a course in quantum mechanics to bring one down to earth.

Until that point, I had never really appreciated what a liberal education is all about. An essayist in The Chronicle has put it this way: “A liberal-arts education . . . is about the recognition, ultimately, of how little one really knows, or can know. A liberal-arts education, most of all, fights unmerited pride by asking students to recognize the smallness of their ambitions in the context of human history . . . .”

Humility isn’t a very fashionable topic in academe. Sure, we all know that pride goeth before a fall, but that means not gloating over trouncing the other team, and not lording it over a colleague because you got the promotion and she didn’t. Besides, preaching humility is the sort of moralizing done by, well, preachers, and not by college professors.

But here the preachers have got it right, and we should listen. True enough, we academics need to empower our students, inspire them to greater heights, engage their passions, and so forth, and obviously we shouldn’t go around gratuitously popping their balloons.

However, unless our students temper their dreams with realism, they will never achieve them. Humility is an important educational goal because it is the bedrock of a liberal education. It is the quality that keeps us from overvaluing our own opinions and discounting the opinions of those who know more than we do. . . .

Next time we sound off on a topic we know little about, or cloak ourselves in moral certainty, or voice unsupported assertions, or jump to unstudied conclusions, or stake out doctrinaire positions on complex issues, we should know that we’re setting a bad example for our students.

Even if we have tenure—especially if we have tenure—we need always to keep in mind that there is no easy path up the mountain. And, like that allegedly famous guy who kept pushing the big rock only to have it roll back again, we should know the mountain’s summit will always be out of reach.

For the full article, see here.

Lewis, “On the Reading of Old Books”

Reading time: < 1 minutes

Lewis, "God in the Dock" coverC. S. Lewis’s introduction to Athanasius’s On the Incarnation has since been reprinted under the title “On the Reading of Old Books” as, for instance, in Walter Hooper’s edited collection of Lewis miscellanies, God in the Dock. This introduction’s text is, however, also available at Silouan in HTML format (HT: Michael Hyatt).