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Friday, August 29, 2008

Teaching for the presidential election

I must be a complete glutton for punishment but I think I want to completely re-arrange the schedule for my Principles class. Yes, classes start next week and yes, I probably am crazy! But while listening to Barack Obama speak last night*, it occurred to me that although I plan to talk about two of the topics that are going to be front-and-center during the election - namely, how our income tax system works and the asymmetric information problems that are crucial for understanding health care - I won't get to them until AFTER November 4th (for non-economist readers, these are both topics that tend to be on the 'optional' list for what to cover in an intro micro class so they are often tacked on at the end of the term, if at all). It seems to me that I should move them up much earlier in the semester so we can use these tools to analyze the candidates' proposals.

I spend the first four weeks of the semester talking about the core principles of economics, including opportunity costs, thinking on the margin, cost-benefit analysis and incentives. I also cover the positive/normative distinction and the equity-efficiency trade-off. After the first mid-term, we get into basic supply and demand, followed by elasticity. I'm thinking that that is where I would then go into asymmetric information, followed by the tax system (taking us up to the end of October). For any economist readers, what do you think? Would this make sense? For non-economist readers, am I crazy to try to re-arrange my schedule at this point? I'd appreciate it if you would leave opinions in the comments!

* One editorial comment about Obama's speech: Wow! Whatever your political leanings, it has to make you incredibly proud that we have reached a day when an African-American man is a serious contender for President!

Thursday, August 28, 2008

The calm before the storm

Classes start next week. I opened up my Blackboard courses on Tuesday (i.e., made them accessible to students), which means some of the students in my Econ for Teachers course are likely to show up here (welcome!) since there's a link on the Blackboard site. Everything is pretty much done (well, except for all the stuff that's not) and at this point, I'm just hoping I haven't overlooked anything major. I'm trying so many new things and in the weeks ahead, I'm sure I'll have lots to think about as I evaluate the good, the bad and the ugly.

One of the new things is the letter I sent to my Principles students. I may have some issues with Blackboard as a 'learning' management system but I have to say, the ability to send email to 500 students, before classes even start, is pretty useful. My objective with the email was to get a jump on some of the more frequently-asked questions I get about buying course materials, and to make sure that students really understand how open I am to having them contact me, since I know that with a class this large (and at a big state University like mine in general), some students will think that they shouldn't "bother" me. I also wanted to plant the seed in their minds that even though it's huge, this class is not going to be just another sit-back-and-passively-listen kind of experience. Of course, that also stresses me out, since the more I set up that expectation, the more important it obviously becomes for me to make sure that the class really is interactive.

So my struggle now is simply with my own expectations for myself. I know that nothing will be 'perfect', especially this first time around, and I keep trying to remind myself that teaching is an iterative process; whatever I don't like this semester, I can fix the next time around. In fact, one of my former students has already pointed out, in the comments to my previous post, my letter needs fixing because it may have been confusing to many students (yeah, that comment didn't stress me out at all...). It's just hard to squelch that part of me that really wants it to be right THIS time.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Dear students...

(This is the email I sent to my Principles students, all 500 of them, this week)

Welcome to Economics 102, Principles of Microeconomics! I’m looking forward to seeing you all in class next Wednesday and hope that we will have a productive semester together. There are just a couple things I wanted you to know/think about before our first class meeting.

The course website on Blackboard is now available and I encourage you to take a look around; in particular, please look over the syllabus before our first meeting (it is posted under “Course Information”). We will discuss the syllabus in class but I will not have copies so feel free to get it off the website and bring it with you. If you are not familiar with Blackboard, go to https://blackboard.sdsu.edu/ to log in. Your username should be your Red ID and your password is your University PIN (i.e., the same information you use for WebPortal). If you do not know your Red ID number or you want to change your University PIN, contact SDSU e-services at http://www.sdsu.edu/e-services/.

In addition to the syllabus, there is information on course materials. If you’ve been to the bookstore, you will have noticed that you are required to buy access to something called Aplia. This is a private website that we will use for on-line activities and practice problems. Aplia provides an on-line version of the Mankiw textbook so you do not have to buy a hard copy of the book if you don’t want to (you can also buy a hard copy of the book from Aplia later if you decide you want it). Note that you are required to buy access to Aplia; you are not required to buy a hard copy of the textbook. Instructions for how to register for Aplia are in the syllabus and under “Course Information” on Blackboard.

You will also need an individual response pad, commonly called a ‘clicker’. These are also at the bookstore and you have the option of buying a one-semester code or a lifetime code; if you get the semester code and later find that you need your clicker for a future class, you can always upgrade. Once you have your clicker (or if you already have one), you can register it using the “Register Clicker” button in the left-hand menu on Blackboard. Additional instructions are under “Course Information”.

I know some students are wondering why you need to buy this stuff. The simple answer is that both Aplia and clickers are tools for getting you actively involved in actually doing economics. In a smaller class, these tools might not be necessary because we could have more face-to-face interaction in class. But with 500 students, we’re going to need some help from technology. I will try to make it as easy as possible for you to engage with the material but if you ever have any questions or concerns about the technology, please do not hesitate to talk to me. Email is the best way to get a hold of me but I will also be holding open hours next Thursday (September 4), meaning I will be in my office from 9am to 5pm, specifically to help anyone who is confused about Aplia, clickers, Blackboard or anything else related to this class.

Finally, I wanted to tell you a little about my teaching philosophy. The reason that I use tools like Aplia and clickers is that I believe teaching is something I do *with* you, not *to* you. I know that might sound odd if you’re used to teachers lecturing at a chalkboard while you just sit there, maybe taking notes but otherwise pretty passive. But ‘teaching’ doesn’t mean much without ‘learning’ (can I really say I taught if you didn’t learn?), and ‘learning’ is something you do. So teaching is something I do to help you learn but whether you actually learn what I’m trying to teach depends on whether you actively engage with me. I’ll spend the first few class meetings trying to convince you that learning economics is worth your time and effort but ultimately, like most things in life, what you get out of this class will depend on what you put in.

Of course, I will always try to provide guidance and expertise that will make learning as interesting and painless as possible. However, I can’t help with problems I don’t know about so please don’t let the size of the class stop you from contacting me anytime you have questions or concerns. I am available to you during my office hours, by phone, email and IM (all listed below).

I look forward to meeting you next week, if not sooner,
Professor Imazeki

P.S. Special note for first-year students: Starting college can be overwhelming. There is a ton of information thrown at you, mixed together with more freedom to make your own choices than you may have ever had before. To make sure that the choices you are making are good ones, be sure that you ask lots of questions and don’t be embarrassed to ask for help when you need it. It may seem like everyone else knows what’s going on but I promise you, they don’t. Under the “Student Resources” link in Blackboard, I’ve posted links to several articles and websites that I thought might be useful, not only for helping you excel in this class but for making the most of your college years.

Monday, August 25, 2008

'Switchtasking' in the classroom

Just read this interview with Dave Crenshaw, the author of The Myth of Multitasking: How "Doing It All" Gets Nothing Done. I haven't read it but apparently, the book makes a distinction between 'background tasking' where you are doing things that do not really require your full attention (like listening to music while you work or exercise) and 'switchtasking' which involves doing things where you must actually shift your attention from one thing to another. Crenshaw's point is that switchtasking actually reduces your productivity, since you are constantly interrupting your flow.

His comments really resonated with me as I've been thinking a lot about multi-tasking lately, both in relation to my own life and in my classroom. As I've gotten more involved in social networks like Twitter and Facebook, not to mention having a growing number of blogs in my feed reader, I seem to have dramatically increased the possible distractions. I'm actually pretty good about ignoring things that I know can wait but there's no denying that I switch between work and my reader or Tweetdeck more often than I probably should (on the other hand, I recently realized that I haven't played any computer games in the last month so it's also possible that I've simply substituted social media for solitaire, which I certainly would consider a life improvement!).

But more urgently (given that classes start in a week), I really wonder about the detrimental effects of students who switchtask in class. A few months back, I wrote about the laptop in the classroom debate. I know that students will argue that they are totally capable of paying attention to the class AND whatever is happening on their screens (of course, even if you believe they can, there is also the issue of whether laptop use affects other students as well, but I'll ignore that for the moment). I'm not unsympathetic to that argument - I believe that the students who say it really do believe that it's true - I just can't quite buy it. Even if students can pick up on the gist of what was just said (that they didn't actually really hear because they were doing something on their computer), I just don't believe that the benefit is the same as it would be if they gave the class their full, undivided attention. Still, since I can't be sure how large the effect is, the economist in me is willing to leave the choice up to the students, at least for now.

Related posts:
Are laptops OK in the classroom?
Are laptops OK in the classroom II

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Am I creating a "creepy treehouse"?

In addition to worrying that my students will be confused by all the technology and social media that I've incorporated into my classes, I've also been wondering about something that apparently is being called the "Creepy Treehouse" effect. This refers to students perceiving the use of certain social media tools as encroaching on their personal space. I don't think this necessarily applies to things like clickers, which students see as being pretty much entirely 'school-related', but it's definitely a concern for sites like Facebook, where students are using it already for socializing. In an informal survey of my students last spring, only a few had interacted with any of their courses through Facebook (including informal study groups or Blackboard's sync application). Furthermore, about half said that they would rather keep social networks separate from schoolwork. On the other hand, almost as many students said they wouldn't mind using Facebook for classes, which leads me to think that it could be OK as long as it was an optional thing and not a required thing.

Chris Lott also makes an important point about the distinction between social networks, where the primary purpose IS the social interaction, and social tools, where interactions have a separate purpose (such as bookmarks, blog posts, etc.). The former is much more likely to trigger the creepy factor than the latter. It also seems to me that if you're going to use social tools, your reasons for using them needs to be crystal clear to your students; that is, if students can see how these tools help achieve class objectives, I think they are less likely to see it as creepy. Given all this, I've basically decided that I won't be using Facebook or Twitter with my classes, and I'll be monitoring their reaction to IM'ing and blogging carefully...

Monday, August 18, 2008

How much technology and social media is 'too much'?

As I've been working on bringing more Web 2.0 tools into my classes, I have frequently wondered how much is too much? I know that my students are supposedly 'digital natives' but I also know that they are not all as cutting-edge tech savvy as we old fogies sometimes assume. For my intro Principles class, students have to maneuver Blackboard (including using discussion boards), Aplia (a private third-party website that provides online problems and experiments for econ classes), an online textbook available through Aplia, clickers, PowerPoint slides and podcasts. In addition, I'm very likely going to be participating in a pilot program to capture my lectures so those will be on iTunes U as well (though students will certainly not be required to watch them - they will just be available as an extra resource). I'm also thinking about using Twitter as an option for students to get reminders and to ask questions in class (also not required but just an extra resource) but am really worried it will all be too much. In my upper-division class, there's a lot less for them to worry about for each class meeting but they will have to deal with doing blogs instead.

On the one hand, all of these tools are invaluable for helping me achieve many of my objectives for these courses. There is simply no way I could make the 500-seater as interactive as I'd like without them. But I anticipate a lot of confusion among students in the first few weeks of school, no matter how many FAQs I put together or how clear my instructions are. But perhaps that is simply the price that must be paid. Do you think it's possible to have 'too much' technology in a class?

Friday, August 15, 2008

To IM or not to IM

I'm not a big user of instant messaging. I have accounts on Skype and GoogleTalk but I just don't use them very much. It's partly a network thing (relatively few of my friends are IM users) and it's partly an inertia thing (I'm very attached to my email). But I think that mostly, it's a workflow thing: when I do get IMs, I feel compelled to respond right away (and then wait for an immediate reply back) but a lot of time, I don't want to interrupt what I'm doing. With email, it feels much more OK if my response isn't immediate, and it allows me to choose who I reply to and when.

Being more active on Twitter has both reduced and increased my concerns. It's taught me that not all messages require a reply (other than perhaps an acknowledgement), and it's gotten me in the habit of having a messaging app open all the time and ignoring a lot of the notifications (I use Tweetdeck so I can see when there are new tweets from certain groups, or @replies, which I'll usually read relatively quickly but only read through the rest a few times a day). But when I get into a conversation with someone on Twitter through @replies, I do feel like I should respond fairly immediately, even though I know that with Twitter, people may not be expecting/waiting for an instant reply. I suspect that if I were using a more direct chat system, I'd feel even more that way. I know I can just set my status to 'not available' when I really don't want to be disturbed but a) there are some messages I don't mind being interrupted with (just as there are some emails that I will respond to immediately when I get them, even if I'm in the middle of something else), and b) I don't always know when I'm going to be in a 'do not disturb' period.

The main reason I'm thinking about all this is I'm trying to decide if I should give my students a way to IM me. In an informal survey of my students last spring, a strong majority use AIM for instant messaging, so if I do decide to let them IM me, I'd probably get an AIM account and then use Digsby or Meebo to manage my different accounts. Most of my own friends that do IM are on Skype or Google and I think I can set my status by network so I could still be available to them at times when I might not want to be available to my students. But is it even worth having students IM me if I'm not going to commit to responding immediately? The other problem I envision is students IM'ing with questions that really can't be answered in a few short sentences, but I suppose I could deal with that by just telling them to come see me or that I'll send a longer response via email.

For any readers who are IM users, what do you think? If you IM someone, how soon do you expect a response? How do you handle IMs in your workflow?

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Automating appointments

Over on The Volokh Conspiracy, Eugene asks if anyone knows of a service or site that will help him automate student appointments. Ideally, students could go to the site, see the available time slots, put in their names and be done. Since this is something that I would be very interested in doing myself, I was curious to see what suggestions he got. A couple commenters suggested Google Calendar (if you 'share' the calendar with all your students) but unless I'm missing something, that would require putting in the emails of all your students individually and that seems like a pain (at least for me - my smallest class is still 40 students). Another commenter recommends Jiffle.com, which looks promising but still requires some email back-and-forth. It occurred to me that a wiki might work - you'd have to create the calendar yourself but then students could go in and fill in their names and even if someone tried to 'erase' someone else's name from a time slot, you'd have a record of the changes. Anyone have any other suggestions? Or has anyone tried any of these options and have opinions they could share?


Monday, August 11, 2008

Getting ready for the fall

One of my reasons for starting this blog was to get some experience with blogging before the fall, when I will be having some of my students blog. Originally, I had been thinking of incorporating blogs into my 500-seater but I have decided to hold off on that until I've seen how it works in a smaller class first (students in the big class will contribute to discussion boards on Blackboard instead, which will allow me to track their posts and comments more easily than just free-for-all blogs). However, my upper-division Economics for Teachers class, which will hopefully be no more than 40 students, will be required to set up blogs. I will also encourage them to read and comment on this blog - I am not sure whether their presence will affect what I choose to write but that will be an experiment too. Over the next few weeks, I will be posting a few entries specifically for my students so to everyone else, please bear with me (or maybe they'll be helpful to you too!).

I'd certainly love to hear from anyone who has used blogs in their courses. I'm still trying to decide how much guidance to give students. For example, should I tell them they must set up their blogs on one site (like Blogger or Edublogs), or give them several options and let them decide? The former is a lot less work for me, the latter gives them more freedom to express themselves as they wish. If I encourage them to all use one site, which one? I'm more familiar with Blogger (and could therefore give them more help if technical issues arise) but again, other sites give them more options for personalizing their blogs easily. And of course, how do I assess their blogs? This first semester is certainly going to involve a whole lot of learning by trial and error...


Saturday, August 9, 2008

More econ vs. personal finance

I loved this title of a recent post at Get Rich Slowly: If Personal Finance is Easy, Why Isn’t Everybody Rich? The post talks about the fact that getting rich is about more than just knowing what to do - it's just as much, if not more, about whether you are emotionally and mentally able to do what you know you need to do:
Human beings are complex creatures. Some of us are highly logical. Some of us are emotional. Most of us fall someplace in between. We rarely make decisions based on optimal paths; more often, we choose what makes us happy in the short term. I’m not saying that this is the right thing to do — it’s just what happens. For those who routinely make financial decisions based on emotion, it can be difficult to turn things around.
This is why I believe it is much more important for high school students to be well-trained in economics, before we start worrying about their knowledge of personal finance. Economics puts human behavior front and center, pointing out over and over that whether you want to admit it or not, life involves trade-offs. I simply don't think that knowing the 'rules' of good personal finance will be much help to someone who doesn't truly understand the more foundational concepts of opportunity costs and cost-benefit analysis.

Related posts:
Economics vs. personal finance
Choice and responsibility: self-help or just good economics?

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Problems worth having

Today I want to put on my 'ed policy researcher' hat, because really, what's the fun of having a blog if you can't get political once in a while? An editorial in today's Sacramento Bee advocates for SB 890 (Scott), a bill that would create "college opportunity zones" in school districts with high proportions of low-income students. The idea is middle-school students pledge to take appropriate coursework, graduate from high school, file for financial aid and enroll in college. If they keep their pledge and continue to show financial need, the state guarantees them a community college fee waiver (under an existing, but under-utilized, program). The cost to administer the Opportunity Zones is fairly small and will be incurred mostly by the Department of Ed who have said they are happy to absorb it into their current budget. The cost of the actual fee waivers will depend on how many students are eligible but could potentially be large, and that is why the bill is held up in Assembly Appropriations.

So what prompted me to write this blog post was a question the Bee editors ask:
... others are concerned that increasing college-going rates among lower-income students might put cost pressure on community colleges, since lower-income students qualify for fee waivers.

Isn't more kids going to college a problem worth having?
Exactly. The whole point is to reach more students who would otherwise be at high risk of dropping out and get them to complete high school and go at least to community college. And this is considered a problem?!?

Unfortunately, this type of thinking doesn't seem uncommon in Sacramento. Another 'are you kidding me?' moment arose during the spring when I was working on a bill that included increasing the transparency of school-level financial data (i.e., we want schools to report how much they spend on different types of students). A staffer-who-shall-not-be-named basically said he was concerned about this part of the bill because reports of spending disparities within districts could lead to local grassroots reform efforts for more equality. Uh, yeah, and the problem with that is...?

Of course, no politician can say they are opposed to increased transparency or to kids going to college, so I sort of get that these statements are about trying to focus on the costs instead of the benefits. What I don't understand is why these people act like the outcomes that will cause the increased costs aren't the whole objective in the first place.

OK, back to things I can control (or think I can) tomorrow...

Monday, August 4, 2008

Cell phones in class - and they're on!

I thought this was an appropriate follow-up to yesterday's post: I recently found From Toy to Tool: Cell Phones in Learning, a wonderful blog from Liz Kolb that offers all kinds of ideas on how to use cell phones as a teaching tool. I can definitely see that the next evolution in my classroom technology adventure could be from clickers to cell phones and Liz's blog is an incredible resource.

However, I will admit that personally, I'm not quite there yet. I don't object to the idea in general, my concern is purely about accessibility. Even though cell phones certainly seem ubiquitous, I still worry about assuming that every student has one and/or requiring them to use minutes or text messages that may cost them additional money. I do think that within a few years, this won't be a big deal, but I'm not convinced that we are quite there yet (actually, now that I think about it, I could use clickers to poll my students about this in the fall!). But even if I don't plan to adopt assignments or activities that require cell phones, Liz also points out in many of her posts that the applications she discusses could be great for students with visual or hearing impairments. For example, Jott has a tool that convert RSS feeds to audio that could be helpful for visually impaired students.

On a related note, I am seriously considering using Twitter as an option for communicating with students both in and out of class. By following an account I've set up, students can see updates and reminders about class but I'm also hoping some will use it as a way to ask questions during class. I know that the size of the uber-lecture keeps many students from speaking up but Twitter would give them a way to submit a question via their phone (or the web, though far fewer students bring laptops to class than have phones). I'm thinking I'll present it to them as an optional 'study aid' so students don't think I'm forcing them to get an account on yet another site (they already have to interact with Blackboard and Aplia, and buy/register clickers). An alternative would be to use a regular IM account but Twitter seems easier. We'll see how it goes...

Related posts:
Clickers are not the enemy
Are laptops OK in the classroom?

Clickers are not the enemy

A couple articles about 'clickers' on InsideHigherEd have evoked some strong responses (here and here). Among the comments, there seem to be three strands: those that love them, those that hate them, and those that think they are a useful tool but recognize that they are just a tool. Since I'm in the last category, I particularly liked a comment from Peg Wherry:
Good teaching is good teaching, regardless of class size or tools available. But some tools let you do different things or even the same things in more productive ways.
Certainly, part of the push-back on clickers is because some administrators want to use clickers (and other technology) as an excuse for increasing class sizes. That is, there are some who would like to believe that the reduction in educational quality created by forcing students into huge lectures can be offset by using these tools to foster greater interaction. To a certain extent, I actually agree - I definitely think that if you are going to teach a class of 500 students, doing it thoughtfully with tools like clickers is better than doing it without them (at least for someone with my personal teaching style, which has always involved lots of interaction). On the other hand, most faculty recognize that no matter what tools you use, bigger classes are just not going to be as good as smaller classes, all else equal. It can then become uncomfortable to condone anything that seems to be making it easier to justify bigger classes.

Personally, I've sort of reached a point of acceptance; at my institution, it seems a bit futile to fight the tide of bigger classes so I've taken more of an "if you can't beat 'em, at least minimize their damage" stance. Hence my recent obsession with Web 2.0 and any tool that I think might make super-sized lectures more bearable. I must admit that sometimes I have to remind myself that these are just tools, and technology should never be considered an end in itself - it's easy to get caught up with all the bells and whistles and lose sight of the real educational objective. But as long as one keeps the right perspective, technology clearly offers enormous potential for increasing student collaboration and interaction.

I'd love to hear from anyone who has already jumped into using Web 2.0 tools like blogs or Twitter with their students. And for those like me, who are just getting started with all this, I would highly recommend a tour around Educause, especially their "7 Things You Should Know About" series.

Related posts:
Learning to trust students
Resisting change
Someone needs to write a book on Web 2.0 for aging educators


Friday, August 1, 2008

Now I am really depressed

From The Economist:
Economics is not like foreign languages (also, and more regrettably, in decline in secondary schools): there is no particular reason to learn it young, when time could perhaps be better spent acquiring general mathematical skills.
When even The Economist gets it so terribly wrong, I feel like just giving up...


Can you teach well without thinking about it?

This is sort of old news by now but the TIAA-CREF Institute released a study a few weeks ago that reports the results of a survey of new professors (within the first five years on the job). The answers that seemed to get the most attention were those about how prepared these individuals felt (or didn't feel) coming out of grad school; for example, the Chronicle highlights the finding that only about 30 percent of respondents felt their graduate educations effectively prepared them to teach undergrads or conduct research and only about 10 percent felt prepared for other job responsibilities like advising or committee work. Inside Higher Ed points out the confidence gap between men and women but also reports some of the differences in how much time men and women spend on household responsibilities.

Since I've already written about how I think professors are not trained as teachers, I won't add to that chorus again now. Instead, I wanted to point out one thing I saw in the survey results that I thought particularly odd. Even after some time on the job, when 76 percent say that they are working 'very effectively' at teaching undergraduates, only 61 percent can articulate their teaching philosophy (and only 54 percent feel effective at teaching with technology). These numbers were at 31 and 19 (20 for the technology question) when asked how they felt just after grad school so there is vast improvement on the job, but what I want to know is what's going on with the 15 percent who say they are teaching effectively but can't articulate their teaching philosophy*? I should point out that the survey was of professors at mid-size private Carnegie Masters institutions, which are generally more teaching-oriented, so it's not like these are schools where professors would not be expected to care about teaching. That just makes it seem all the more odd. If you haven't given some conscious thought to why you are doing what you're doing in the classroom, how can you really say that what you are doing is effective?
* When I say 15 percent, I am assuming that the 61 percent who can articulate their teaching philosophy are all part of the group that believe they are teaching effectively; of course, if there are some who are not in the latter group, that means there are even more who believe they are very effective at teaching but cannot articulate their teaching philosophy.

Related posts:
Where is the demand for better teachers?
Professors as teachers
Economists are not taught pedagogy