Reflections on the BigWiki Experiment

[This is the first of several reflections I wrote during the semester, but waited until it was over to post, since I didn’t want my blog reflections to influence student behavior.]

After 2/3 of the semester, I’ve concluded that the approach I’ve taken to teach intermediate macro, while it has some merit, doesn’t work as well as my traditional approach.

Incorporating a wiki into the course in a substantive way is a powerful tool for engaging students, especially some who wouldn’t engage otherwise. Requiring the chapter analyzes is an effective way of getting students to read the text. More importantly, the chapter analyses are an efficient means for the teacher to identify what the students don’t understand. Just-In-Time Teaching works! I plan to incorporate this in my research methodology course next Fall.

But spending class time to merely respond to student questions isn’t the best use of that time. The problem is that one function of a good lecture is to organize the material in a way that makes sense, quite possibly a way that is different from the way the text does it. At times, spending class time exclusively to answer student questions seemed like a more or less random discussion of the topics.

What is necessary with this approach is for students to make a regular and serious effort to make meaning of the chapter. In the traditional approach students have two models to work from: the text and the lecture. With the approach I tried this semester, the course environment doesn’t necessarily encourage meaning making in the context of chapter-length chunks. Students don’t have to do it as a matter of course. The incentives are indirect at best. Yes, students should do this to be successful on the exams, but they won’t necessarily see this until late in the game, just before (or even after) the midterm exam.

This leads to another issue. The text is very much a practical guide to doing macroeconomics. It includes a great deal of very useful information that a journeyman macroeconomist should know. But at some level I wonder if that’s what an intermediate macrotheory course should be about. At least, it’s not the way I see my course. My course is designed to teach students a particular type of analytical thinking — the way economists use models to make predictions about how events/disturbances affect situations. For example, one question I asked last year was how, from the perspective of a particular economic model, did Hurricane Katrina affect wage rates in the Gulf Area. This type of analysis is not intuitive–students want to apply their own knowledge or intuition to answer the question, when they need to learn to let the model do the work. The reason for this is that if they continue to do real economics, they will encounter situations where their intuition fails them. So the focus of my course is on learning to use theories and models, whereas the focus of the text seems to be on questions (such as why does unemployment exist and persist) and what real world complications have a bearing on those questions. This is in no way a criticism of the text; it simply reflects my conclusion that the text doesn’t fit my course.

The students in my course did less well this year than typically on the midterm. At one level, I should have been able to predict this. My exam asks them to apply specific theories to analyze a given situation. But they had essentially no experience doing this. They wouldn’t have been able to really anticipate this based on the text. And in answering their questions (from the text), I spent little class time working those types of problems.

My immediate response to their performance was to assign problems to be done after each subsequent chapter. What I did was to select appropriate problems from those at the end of each chapter. I am fairly comfortable that for the rest of the term, students will have a better understanding of what I’m trying to accomplish with the course. But at another level, this reveals another tension. I would like to students to learn the practical tricks of the trade that the text reveals. And every text has some of those tricks. But I still feel that those are secondary to what the course is primarily about. If I’m not going to test students on the tricks, how will I convince students to learn them since grades are the currency of the realm. In the past students have learned pretty quickly what they do and don’t have to master to succeed in the course. As a result, the generally spend little time studying the “tricks of the trade.”

I’ve learned a great deal from this course about teaching in general and how to effectively employ a wiki. But is that enough to justify what I’ve done to this cohort of students? A colleague from another department whose opinions I respect said that she would never try something innovative in her courses unless she was certain it would be successful. I clearly have a different philosophy. Remember that on the first day of class, I warned the students that this course was highly experimental, and that they should seriously consider whether to take it this semester or to hold off for another time. Future students of mine will certainly benefit from what I learned this term.

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3 Responses to Reflections on the BigWiki Experiment

  1. Jeff says:

    I tend to stake out a middle ground between radically experimental and not changing anything unless I’m sure it’s going to be successful. [Actually I’m not convinced that something is really all that “innovative” if you’re sure it’s going to be “successful” before you do it.]

    Still, thanks for this honest, critical, thoughtful post about your teaching and experiment. Any chance you have a student perspective(s) on the class’s methods that looks at the big picture in this way?

  2. Pingback: Pedablogy: Musings on the Art & Craft of Teaching » Blog Archive » Postmortem on my experiments with teaching this year.

  3. Billy says:

    As a student in the class, I’ll try to provide a students perspective; getting a big picture view though, is a bit harder. Just make a disclaimer for myself, as a student my role in the course is entirely selfish because its my learning, my sacrifices and my just desserts. I think that Dr. Greenlaw was trying to change this standard approach that students take to learning, by making it more dynamic among the students–If you learn, then I learn–but when I learn you learn—so learning is a feedback system. But I didn’t change my approach because it hard to shuffle off 15 years of practice in the standard, boring, comfortable way of learning. I think this is one reason why the course failed.

    The self-criticisms that Dr. Greenlaw offered, I feel, are correct. There was not the structure of a professor’s lectures to 1) weed out irrelevant information for the course. The text was often quite dense with difficult information–I don’t know what is most necessary to learn in order to achieve an overall understanding of the Macro Economy; unless I already have that understanding. And that’s where the professor must play a positive role as instructor. 2) This role is doubly important if the text is not exactly fitted for the course. Like you professors always like saying, “economics is a way of thinking,” and you’re absolutely right. Economics is not a textbook, even if all its laws of practice can be nicely typed up; but without the positive role of a professor there to guide/clarify/focus my line of reasoning, I studied the book desperately searching for a structure. I mistook periphery information for being fundamental; not knowing what to know, and what to discard as insignificant, I caused myself some heartache and wasted too much time.

    Was it worth compromising the benefits accrued to one macro class, in order that you make up for the losses next time around? Do the ends justify the means?…should we sacrifice the needs of the few to benefit the many? As a student, I will probably get too caught up in the pedagogy of what I’ve learned from my philosophy courses. But that’s why Greenlaw asked me to write this comment in the first place; to give a different perspective. Firstly, just because the sun rose yesterday, does not require that it will rise tomorrow. You can’t prove that it will, because it hasn’t happened yet; there are always risks involved no matter how reliable our practices have proven themselves to be—so we live our lives according to probability. Imposing a new structure of learning is an innovation; but so is upgrading from Window’s 98 to Windows XP—they both carry risks and you’re never sure about the outcomes, but they are both innovations right? One carries more risk of failure than the other perhaps, but in both cases there is a progression and integration of new technology. So what probability of success would you need to make an innovation? And if the benefits are enormous, it seems irresponsible of you to ignore the whole thing, especially now that there is a cost of standing still.

    How do we weight the benefits vs. the costs, to determine if Dr. Greenlaw’s decision was an ethical one? This assumes a lot though, and please excuse this brief digression, its necessary to understand what I mean later. We are in a liberal nation—and by this I mean we Americans subscribe to “liberalism” and “social contract theories”, where an individual is given certain “inalienable rights” as the possessor of “rational functions.” We are thus “individuals” who relate with one another through “contracts” such as marriages, purchases, jobs, unionization, etc. Thus, when you ask the question: “was it worth it ?” you’re looking for that boundary between essential and non-essential “rights” of individuals—the same boundary that our US Bill of Rights was trying to define when it guaranteed civil liberties. When you say that you informed your class about the risks, then you made them aware; they then committed themselves freely to a “contract.” And so long as costs were not irreparable, and the benefits could last forever a foundation for better learning everywhere, then why not! But this is only true with a liberalist framework, and a American understanding of liberalism at that.

    I’m not trying to scare people, but let’s consider the Marxian system of historical materialism for a second, in which the relations that exist between people in production will determine their relations to one another in society. This means that I understand myself according to how I live in the world, and I live in the world as something that is always creative, so how I create will determine how I understand myself. Scarce resources requires competition, so I produce in competition and understand my self in combat with others—as an individual required to maintain contracts with others—our modern idea of liberalism. But we all think as individuals, and insofar as we relate to one another as separate entities, I’m not sure that your innovative system of learning will ever work, unless class contributions are much more highly incentivized.

    Grades are primary, because we live in a broader human system that determines them to be; some philosophers have argued that, ethically, whatever further human consciousness is a good thing. Hegel for example, proposes a theodicy in which all actions are justified because they help in the unfolding of the “Idea”, or concept that our world really “is.” Just like a flower, whatever helps is grow is a good thing, even if it’s horse manure. That many people think this way is a testament to Hegel’s influence; but then maybe this class experiment wasn’t such a bad idea?

    But with respect to ethics, there is the term “ideology” that nicely sums up what I want to say. “The ruling ideas of the times, are those of the ruling class”—and what is the ruling class except well educated, and what else should we value besides education? It is because we see things as so important, that we see Dr. Greenlaw’s experiment as sacrifice. What was lost, in this case, depends on the relative value of what we could have obtained otherwise—and what we value determines what this cost is. But what we value comes into ourselves according to our competitive relations, that is, we value education, whereas Sudanese nomads value camels. But then where does that leave us? If we understand things this way, what was sacrificed does not have any real impact on our “inalienable rights”—because there is nothing “inalienable” anymore. I have no essential, always present “rights” outside of my context.

    But that’s not how we think. I think, “Damn, I could have learned so much more, and thus been better!” Nothing was actually lost, but in effect, not as much was gained, and we’re upset by this. But maybe more will be gained in the future, and make up our losses. It sounds like economics! John Stuart Mill was thinking economically! But since when did economics wield such arrogance as to think it could give universal laws of behavior? Personally—because that’s the only perspective I can be sure of—I enjoyed the class and have no regrets.

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