Tuesday, June 17

Just Ramblin, No 3: Romanian politics, Chicago politics, online education

Politics of change?
I love this story. As reported by Reuters, the residents of a Romanian deliberately chose to re-elect a dead man rather than vote for his opponent for what seems like a sort of mayoral election. The gentleman who was elected posthumously had been in charge for about 20 years and died just after voting began, which explains why he was on the ballot at all. One of the voters was quote as saying, "I know he died, but I don't want change."

Clearly the now-deceased Neculai Ivascu was a good leader, good enough that the village wanted to maintain the status quo. Tough mandate for his opposition, Gheorghe Dobrescu, who was awarded the position because he is, well, alive. There is no word about the Dobrescu's platform or position, but this is a message from the people he doesn't want to ignore.

You talking to me?
Meanwhile in Palatine, IL, there was a rather contentious meeting last night when Cook County President Todd Stroger deigned to show up. He'd been invited to an earlier meeting held by the northwest suburbs, but canceled at the last minute and made some comment about being scared and confused when driving all the way out to Palatine. There have been rumblings of secession from Cook County for a while (there was talk in the 1970s about creating a new Lincoln County, but the volume has been turned up with the latest tax hike.

Stroger has been under fire since he assumed the mantel of Cook County Board President from his then ailing father. He has been accused of nepotism and corruption as well as ineptitude, but no one seems to do much more than whine and complain. However, he may be pushing the limit of what people are willing to take, especially given the economic climate.

The northwest suburbs have a healthy tax base and it is not as though the local governments are unaware of services provided by the county. I can't imagine they haven't already begun to investigate how they would provide county services if they were no longer a part of Cook County. So Mr. Stroger's comments about how local governments are unaware were disingenuous at best.

Now I didn't go to the meeting itself, but I did see quite a bit of the video and what struck me was Mr. Stroger's demeanor. As angry taxpayers are telling him they don't trust him and the government, he is giving pithy responses that people don't trust politicians--no attempt whatsoever to create a bridge. More significant to me was the smirk on his face. What he said and did simply punctuated that smirk--he was completely dismissive in his comments about the taxpayers' concerns, about business owners concerns about people going across the county line to Lake County to shop and do business, etc.

Most of the villages and towns don't use as many of the Cook County services as Mr. Stroger might think they do. Villages are responsible for plowing and maintaining their own streets, most of them have their departments for police, fire, animal control, and health. Most people in the suburbs are not served by the county hospitals. It was clear that most suburban residents of Cook County believe that the board serves the residents of Chicago and doesn't much care about the suburbs. Mr. Stroger did nothing to dispel that impression when he met with suburban government officials and residents. If anything, he may have further impelled them to find ways to secede. And the suburbs may be only a referendum away from that very act of rebellion.

Educators can be really dumb
The typical college class meets for about 50 minutes if it on that traditional Monday, Wednesday, Friday schedule. Classes can meet longer for alternative schedules, of course, but let's work with that 50-minute time frame.

Over the past decade or so, educators have been talking a lot about active learning, cooperative learning, engaging learners, constructivism, but apparently mostly for the K-12 students. For some reason, college professors seem to think that they can talk for 50 minutes and retain the riveted attention of their students. Not really and probably not ever.

There was a recent story in the Chronicle about a popular lecturer who decided to videotape his lectures. He was surprised to learn that his 50-minute talks were not as interesting online as they were in person. Duh. The fact is that his persona in front of a camera in a studio is not at all like that of his presence when he lectures in person to his students. There's no audience interplay and I'm going to guess he doesn't lecture, non-stop, for the full 50 minutes.

Now there is the rise of the mini-lecture so instructors are videotaping shorter segments, possibly including PowerPoint slides to break up the monotony of the talking head. Okay, so let's think about movies for a minute. People will plunk down a chunk of change to sit in a theater for a couple of hours, but there is more than one person talking and there is likely to be action. Even in a Merchant Ivory film there is action. Not blowing-things-up-saving-the-world action, but more than watching some guy talk to a camera.

I've been working in the online education space for a long time and it comes as no surprise to me that students are bored out of their skulls having to watch some guy yammer on about something. You know they stopped listening about 10 minutes into the segment because they are doing something else on their computers. So here's the deal, give them something else to look at--demonstrations, pictures, video clips of what you're talking about, even the dreaded PowerPoint slide--and have your lecture as a voiceover, like a documentary. That way they are more engaged and on multiple levels.

Marian C. Diamond teaches anatomy and neuroscience at the University of California at Berkeley and worries that shorter presentations might also be simplifying the material. But it's not about simplifying the lecture to make it less daunting. It's about helping students make connections and seeing the relevance.

I'm going to guess that Dr. Diamond has students asking for longer classes, not longer lectures. And I'm going to guess the reason for that is they recognize and see her passion when she teaches and I'm going to guess she does way more than stand behind a podium and yammer about her subject matter.

This isn't rocket science. This is a call for good pedagogy and helping college professors, who know their content but so often don't really know what makes good teaching, become better teachers rather than better lecturers.

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