Archive for October, 2012

On Being a Student

I’m writing this at 10:42 Sunday night and have just wrapped up my Coursera course on Sustainability (with about 30 minutes to spare!) . I’ll have more to say about the course (including my final ‘grade’), its content and the mechanics of delivery, but for now, I thinking about the general experience of being a student.  I like to joke with people that I never left college. I walked on to the campus of Cleveland State University in September of 1976 and never left.  Well, I did leave Cleveland State, but you get what I mean.  My on-going journey has taken me to Ohio State (uh, sorry, THE Ohio State University), University of Delaware, Penn State, UC Davis and a brief stint at the University of the Basque Country (which I’ve chronicled on this blog. Boise State may be the last stop in this tour, but who knows?

My wife and I were on joint sabbatical leaves at UC Davis in the winter of 1997. It was great opportunity to reflect on the first 10 years of my academic career.  As a result, when I got back to Pennsylvania, I started talking guitar lessons.  Stay with me, I’ll, tie this into the discussion. Part of my motivation was that  I realized that if I wanted to be a better teacher, I should never loose sight of what it’s like to be a student.  To put it another way, if you want be a good teacher, it helps to spend time doing something your really suck at.  To this day, the guitar still fills that niche for me.

This is my 26th year as a professor, but I think I’ve only taken 2 college courses since taking my PhD.  The past 8 weeks have been eye-opening on so many levels and I hope to  spend more time in this space in the coming days and weeks to explore them.  Here are a few things that I’d like to write about in the coming days.

1) This is the first time I’ve seen “sustainability” within a well-defined academic framework. It’s starting to look like a field of study with sturdy intellectual foundations.  I’ve been impressed with the content of the course. I’ve learned a lot.

2) The on-line environment is clearly an effective method of instruction. Is it a replacement for in-class lecture/discussion? Clearly not, but in a time of dwindling public support for higher education and increasing pressure to keep tuition low, we’d be crazy to ignore this tool as a way to leverage precious resources. I think there’s a place for on-line, blended and other models.  I predict we’ll be seeing a lot of this in the future.

3)  The discussion forums were the most eye-opening for me.  It occurs to me that students who would be loathe to contribute to an in-class discussion (for a number of reasons) may find this environment much more conclusive to their style.  This was the first time I realized that there are some elements of on-line instruction that may be superior to in-class delivery.

4) There’s an interesting dimension to this course and this discussion.  The course I took was “Introduction to Sustainability” and one of the implications that I keep coming back to  is the way that on-line education can possibly reduce the environmental footprint of higher education. The largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions on my campus is due to daily commuting.  Imagine if we deployed on-line education with the specific goal of reducing the days/week that students have to visit campus? What’s the impact of not building another parking garage? How many trees were saved by not having a physical textbook, printed syllabi, or hard-copy exams?

5) Preparation of a on-line course is a big undertaking. The closing credits of the course lists no fewer than 23 people who were involved in the preparation and delivery of this course (in addition to Professor Jonathan Tomkin).

6) What do we get for that investment? That’s the key question isn’t it? That’s what I’m trying to figure out, but the first answer that comes to mind, is that you get to engage 31,400 (estimated enrollment of this course) over an 8 week period.
We live in interesting times….



October 22, 2012 at 5:08 am Leave a comment

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