Adding Future Proof Skills to Course Syllabii

There are many college-level courses that are required but not beloved by students. Math requirements, in particular, are particularly disliked by most students. I believe that we teach mathematics to help students develop logical thinking, attention to detail, and a method for attacking problems of all types. The subject of mathematics provides a common language and structure to allow the development of these skills. Unfortunately, in our zeal to explain “when we are going to use this” we wander into the dark land of contrived application problems and ridiculous problem constraints. But what if there were another way to frame the value of the skills developed in learning mathematics?

During my last year of teaching, I began to reframe the syllabus in a way that focused on the general skills that would serve students well in the future, rather than the standard answers to “when am I going to use the specific learning objectives of this course?” The six skill categories are: Focus, Explain, Flex, Interact, Analyze, and Learn. They are explained in more detail in the original post: What skills should we be teaching to future-proof an education?

Beginning with an empty template with the skills and more detailed descriptions, I walked through all the activities in each course I taught, and outlined how the course would help my students develop the skills they need to be prepared for future jobs.

You can find the empty template as a Word Doc here: Future-Proof Template for Course Syllabus. It looks something like this for each skill:

 

Some skills were not covered in the course. If that was the case, I just removed that line of the table.  However, a surprising number of the subskills were covered in every course I did this exercise with.

The syllabus section about the “future-proof” skills begins with a general description of what the students are about to see:

This is a list of the skills we believe will make you a valuable worker even as careers and technology shifts. These skills are not particular to any discipline – they are skills that overlay the content that you learn. To prepare for an uncertain economy, you should strive to practice and improve on the skills listed below. In this class, you will practice and improve on many of these valuable skills. These are outlined below.

Here is an example of the future proof skills applied to a Calculus II course:

Note: You can see the entire Calc II Future Proof Skill list here.

When framing topics like Techniques of Integration as a skill like “learning to change your bearings” it is much easier to justify the learning objective to Pharmacy students (let’s face it, they won’t ever use a technique of integration on the job, but most do have to take Calc II).  Pharmacy students will have to be able to determine when a chosen treatment plan is failing, and adjust course to suggest an alternative approach.

So now a little thought experiment. Let’s pretend we reframed the college experience as a way to gain and improve on these types of skills while also gaining subject-matter expertise. Suppose freshmen came into the system with a way to measure their current skill levels in these areas. Students could make goals to improve on specific areas in specific courses (I asked my students to commit to specific improvement goals in each course).  At the end of the semester, students could write a self-evaluation for areas they think they have improved on and ask instructors to “endorse” (or disagree) with the written evaluations. During their college experience, these students could graduate their real, measured, and endorsed abilities into a system like LinkedIn or Degreed.

It’s important for students to gain subject matter expertise in college, but equally important to gain skills that will make them valuable employees and colleagues, and surface those skills to potential employers.  As a fresh graduate entering the workforce, it would be incredibly valuable to be able to provide proof that you can “write so others understand” or examples that show you can “adapt to new situations”  even when they made you uncomfortable. It is my belief that these are the skills that are not being measured and surfaced in higher education.

There are rare examples of schools that provide this type of unique focus at the core of their educational structure (e.g. Alverno College), but a college doesn’t have to be restructured in order to provide this focus. The educational technologies we have today could be adopted to track a students’ successes and failures at improvement on the future proof skills. Each instructor could evaluate their own unique approach to courses to assess which skills might be focused on as the subject-matter is delivered.

An initiative like this would have to be championed at the leadership level by a President, a board, or a Dean of Academics and jointly supported by the faculty. But can you imagine? An entire institution devoted to helping students not only become subject-matter experts, but also to prepare for the employment world of the future? Well, I can dream. It is, after all, a thought experiment.

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The Invasive Valley of Personalization

About 9 months ago, I gave a presentation at the World Future Society Conference called The Promise and Perils of Personalization.

After thinking, reading, discussing, and musing about personalization for about a year, I realized that there is a fine line between useful personalization and creepy personalization. It reminded me of the “uncanny valley” in human robotics. So I plotted the same kind of curves on two axes: Access to Data as the horizontal axis, and Perceived Helpfulness on the vertical axis.  For technology to get vast access to data AND make it past the invasive valley, it would have to be perceived as very high on the perceived helpfulness scale.

I remember the first time I saw Google Now deployed on my phone. It told me that my commute to work would take 16 minutes if I left right now. I had never told Google Now where I worked, I had not told Google Now the route I drove to work, nor had not asked it to calculate my commute time.  While it was slightly creepy that it knew all this information by analyzing my daily patterns, it was also useful, and the trip over the invasive valley was short. Of course, since I now work remotely from home, Google Now thinks I work at the LDS church across the street from my house now. I’m surprised it hasn’t figured out my gym patterns and started reminding me when to leave for yoga.

I think Google Glass is getting a bad rap simply because it is stuck in the invasive valley. The general population really doesn’t see it as providing useful technology for everyday life. Sure, you can snap a picture from your glasses, but if that’s it then you’re just sneaking into the privacy of others. If, en masse, we viewed Google glass as an incredibly helpful tool, I think it would successfully navigate itself up the steep slope to redemption.

Facebook wanders in and out of the invasive valley depending on the news and the latest release cycle of their apps and privacy statements. When the latest Facebook app demanded access to all my texts, I questioned the helpfulness of the feature it claimed to need these things for – account verification for some users. The idea that Facebook would read all my texts simply to add this one feature for some users slid it back down into the invasive valley for me. This feature is not helpful enough to warrant access to all that data.

In describing the “Invasive Valley” of data access and personalization my husband looked at me and said “Forget Big Brother, wait till you meet Big Mother!” and I think that is where we’re headed. Personalization is going to become our new life nagging companion:

Maybe you should walk now? You’ve only got 2,100 steps so far today.

You have symphony tickets on Saturday night, have you made a dinner reservation yet?

I can see that you’ve eaten yogurt for 4 mornings now, should we should add yogurt to your grocery list?

You’ve only gotten an average of 6 hours of sleep a night for 5 nights, I think you should take an early bedtime tonight.

Clearly enough data is being collected about me that Google Now could do any of these (if it had access to my FitBit and Smith’s card). Don’t these all seem like things your mother would remind you of?

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Full version of Algeboats is out!

In case you’ve been waiting, the full version of Algeboats is out in the iPad store for $4.99.

You can see some of the gameplay for the Lite version of Algeboats on Youtube.

The game is designed to teach students about what algebraic variables mean and to begin to understand equations. It’s clever because the students don’t see equations to solve, but in the process of finding crate values that “make” the flags, they begin working backwards and thus solving the equations created by boat=flag. I’ve seen learners as young as 5 be absolutely delighted by the game (and the fact that they are doing algebra). Parents, of course, will be delighted as well.

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The 1-9-90 Rule and Observations of a Classroom Experience

I’ve referenced Vilma Mesa‘s Classroom Mapping for a while now, and want to give this some more thoughtful due diligence.

You can see examples of Vilma’s Classroom mapping in this Slideshow (the images are shared with her permission and you may reshare them by sharing the slideshow).

The 1-9-90 rule is a rule of thumb governing interaction in collaborative environment: 1% of the participants are creators, 9% are contributors (they comment, like and share things), and 90% lurk. While it is applied mostly to collaboration and networking in digital environments, I was struck by how it also plays out in classrooms. If you click through the slides, you’ll see the same ratio play out over and over.
The instructor (one person) creates the content. Roughly 3-4 students ask and answer questions. The rest of the class? They lurk, probably hoping to just watch it all play out without having to participate.
If this is the natural norm of collaborative environments, this gave me a couple questions to ponder. First, should we even try to shift the norm by mandating more participation by the lurkers? I think that classroom environments are a good place to try to engage students in more active learning. Even if a students’ natural tendency is to lurk, she/he has to learn to participate actively even when it is not desirable (they will have to face an employer eventually that will require this of them). So I think that we should try to increase the participation by the 90%, but just be mindful of this natural social breakdown in collaborative settings (translation: there will be pushback).
The second point to ponder is this: typically online instructors do “force” the lurkers to participate in activities like discussion boards. But often the same instructor will have no such type of participation requirement for a face-to-face classroom. Clearly one reason is the time that would take too much time to let everyone in the class have a say in every discussion, not to mention that the discussion would quite quickly become a lot of rephrasing of what other people said. Oh wait … that is what required online discussions are like. If you teach both online and face-to-face, give this some good thought – I think it is our goal to create the most high-value learning experience we can, and while the environment should impact the design of the experience, be mindful of creating dull experiences just because everyone “has to” participate.

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Surviving (and Thriving) in the Age of Technology-Enhanced Teaching

I’ve been giving versions of this presentation at several events lately: AlaMATYC, SXSWEdu, STEAM3, and Elgin CC’s Distance Learning Conference. I said I would post the slides, and so here they are in one version.

To see the video of students in the math classroom, here are some links to the YouTube videos:

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