Sunday, January 30, 2011

A picture is worth a thousand words

Seeing is believing! In journalism, an image or picture can be so powerful that it can change the world! Jonathan Klein in his TED talk (below) says that images themselves don't change the world but the images have provoked reactions in people, and those reactions have caused change to happen. The image can have a profound impact on our mind and can change our perception on certain issue and how we view things around us. Good image (photo) tells a visual narrative – it tells a story. A photograph has the ability to convey emotion, mood, narrative, ideas and messages – all of which are important elements of storytelling.

In another TED talk “Photography Connects Us with the World”, David Griffin says, “photography carries a power that holds up under the relentless swirl of today's saturated media world, because photographs emulate the way that our mind freezes a significant moment”.

There’s a problem, though, a picture can also be deceiving! People will interpret pictures differently depending on their social backgrounds, personal beliefs and technical/professional knowledge. A picture can also be used for exploitation and for the wrong purpose. Sometimes the photo is ‘doctored’ or manipulated in order to portray a different meaning or to increase the news value (see for example “Controversy crops up over Economist Cover Photo"). So the next time when we look at a picture we have to be careful and not easily jump to conclusion because “seeing is no longer believing” in this day of digital manipulation.

How do we use pictures to enhance learning? I hear, I forget...I see, I remember...I do, I understand... This ancient Chinese proverb suggests that students learn in many ways, like seeing, hearing, and experiencing things first hand. In a classroom, a graphic representation in the form of picture, video or even live demonstration can be very useful to explain and illustrate a concept.  

In my course, I try very hard to get across the excitement of food science. I do live demonstration in the classroom to introduce or illustrate a concept. Usually I will get one or two students to help me out. In one lecture for example, I bring one full bag containing different types of food products. In another course, I bring and assemble the apparatus in front of the classroom. Over the course of a semester these demonstrations include pouring tomato sauce on the plate and pouring milk into a glass to demonstrate the concept of viscosity, “playing” with silly putty to illustrate viscoelastic properties, etc. When live demonstration is not possible, I will show a video. In most of my lectures I use pictures and graphs to help illustrate different concepts, as most students can then at least intuitively understand the concepts even if they have trouble understanding the analysis.

Another graphical tool that I encourage students to use is mind mapping technique. At the end of each major topic, I will ask the students to summarize what they have learnt and understood in the form of a simple mind map. In the next lecture, I will show my own mind map and ask the students to compare and improve their mind map. I used a free mind mapping software called Freemind but recently I tried and I think it is quite good (see link below for other free mind mapping softwares).

Here are some useful links:

Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Power of Story and Anecdotes

Do you know how MSG (monosodium glutamate, a common flavor enhancer added to food) was discovered? Do you know we can produce sugar from starch – any starch? Do you know the history of food canning? Do you know that everything flows, even the mountain – if we wait long enough? Do you know…OK, let me tell you an interesting story…here goes...

I like stories and I think students of all ages also love stories. In fact, one of the classroom techniques that I personally have found most rewarding is the anecdotal and storytelling. Science is full of interesting stories and anecdotes that can spice up and enlighten ordinary lecture/presentation into a memorable one. So whenever possible, I like to start my lecture or presentation by asking question or telling story and anecdotes. Judging from students’ response and facial expression, I would say that most of the time (perhaps all the time) the students enjoy listening to the story. From my experience, every time when I tell a story or anecdotes in my lecture most students would listen intently. You don’t have to be Tom Cruise or Nicole Kidman to lighten up your class room (although my students would be enthralled if they were around!). All that is needed for the storytelling approach is a pool of stories and a little narrative ability (that’s all I have really…only a LITTLE narrative ability).

I think telling a story is an effective way to draw students’ attention because I can engage them more readily in the learning process – it’s a valuable way to make the learning environment exciting, encourage learning, and also a way to put things into perspective. Let me give one simple example. I teach a course on “Starch Chemistry and Technology”. Starch is a type of carbohydrate that we can find in bread, rice, cereals, etc. Starch in our food is a very important component because it provides the essential energy for our daily lives activity.  I want to emphasize to my students that starch is actually a form of storage energy in plant and this energy can be released and harnessed by our system by “breaking down” starch into sugar! As an analogy, it is like chemical energy stored in a battery which can be converted into electrical energy. The challenge is how to explain this important fact by making it as a lively and interesting story? Well, I do have a story to tell but the bottom line is I can whet the appetite of the students to learn more about the chemistry and technology of starch. To ensure your storytelling or anecdote will capture and captivate the attention of the students (or audience, if you are giving a presentation), it is important to rehearse it beforehand because when you start telling the story, you have to deliver it smoothly, coherently, convincingly, and enlighteningly!

From my limited reading on the use of storytelling in education, I found that many researchers regarded it as one of the most appropriate pedagogical approaches for teaching and learning of science at all levels of education. According to Gere, storytelling involves imagination and the use of language and gestures to create scenes in the mind of the listener. The magic of story time is that it exercises the powerful muscle of the imagination, which is the center of being human.

Some advantages of using storytelling in a classroom can be listed as follow:
  • Storytelling stimulates the imagination. Scientist Albert Einstein said that "imagination is more important than knowledge.”
  • Stories go straight to the heart. Because students are emotionally involved and truly enjoy storytelling, it can help to create a positive attitude toward the learning process.
  • Storytelling engages students and encourages them to think critically, to analyze evidence, and finally, to develop positive attitudes towards science and the place of science in human culture (Kokkotas, 2010).
According to Hadzigeorgiou (2006), the beginning of the story is crucial and decisive for activating the imagination of students. In the main part of the story, the concepts to be taught should be interrelated and expressed in a clear structure. The end of the story should include an ethical message or idea for the learners. The aims are not only to create perspectives, hopes, motivations, and wonder for the students, but also to facilitate their acquiring a deeper understanding and remembering of the concepts.

In my subject area (food science), there are a number of interesting stories I can share with my students. In other areas such as pure sciences (biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics), engineering, medical, social science, humanity, etc., there are even more stories that can be used to spice up the class room. I would encourage educators to incorporate stories and anecdotes into your classroom because you can certainly make learning exciting and fun for your students.

Here are some links and references if you want to learn more:
  • Folino, A.A.  (2001). Stories and Anecdotes in the Chemistry Classroom. Journal of Chemical Education, 78(12), 1615-1617.
  • Green, M.C.  Storytelling in Teaching (very interesting and comprehensive article – highly recommended).
  • Gere, J., Beth-Ann Kozlovich, Daniel A. Kelin II. By Word of Mouth: A Storytelling Guide for the Classroom.
  • Hadzigeorgiou, Y. (2006). Humanizing the teaching of physics through storytelling: The case of current electricity. Physics Education, 41(1), 42-46.
  • Kokkotas, P., Rizaki, A., Malamitsa, K. (2010). Story telling as a Strategy for Understanding Concepts of Electricity and Electromagnetism. Interchange, 41(4), 379-405.
I found some interesting presentations about storytelling on SlideShare:

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Not in the right frame of mind? Get more sleep!

Why am I writing about sleep? Well, no obvious reason. As usual, I stumbled upon a short clip "The Power of Sleep" on CBS website. Another interesting clip, also on sleep, has an interesting title, "How to succeed - Get more Sleep". Actually I've been reading my student's doctoral (Ph.D.) thesis for the past few days. Nowadays my mind get tired easily, perhaps because it's constantly being fed with reading too much of technical things. Reading critically can really drain my energy, not to mention my eyes - and the strain on the neck, back... So how do I deal with the stress? More readings...and listening! This is my escapism, or...hmmm...shall I say, my recreational activity! I like to read blog, mainly educational blog (read this article: 10 reasons to get educators blogging). I have a long list of websites and blogs in my browser's bookmark.I also subscribe via RSS feed (I'm using iGoogle and Pageflakes). Now I'm rebuilding the bookmark in Diigo and hopefully I can share with the world.

Reading topics outside my own specialization sort of ease my mind. It's my way of relaxing. I like to read short blog article mainly on these topics: teaching, learning, education, research, presentation skills, brain science (cognitive), e-learning, and...comedy! I especially like to watch short video clip on YouTube, Teacher Tube, TED, Times Magazine, CBS, Discovery Channel, etc.These video sharing sites are really goldmine of educational resources for students, educators, and lifelong learners. I remember many years ago (before YouTube time), I was looking for a video showing the processing step of producing wheat flour (from grain to flour). There was none to be found on the internet. Finally I had to order the video (on CD-ROM) from the Australian Wheat Board. Nowadays this is no longer an issue. People are ever willing to share via various popular video sharing sites such as YouTube, Vimeo, Blips.TV, etc.

Now, back to the topic on sleep. Watch (listen) the following short presentation, "How to Succeed - Get More Sleep" by Arianna Huffington in TED Talks. She says, in the nutshell, you need to get enough sleep to enable you to think clearly and unlock billions of brilliant ideas. Hmmm...Her secret of a more productive, more inspired, more joyful life is...getting enough sleep! I hope the secret is not patented! She says sometimes we don't see the big picture simply because we are not able to focus our thought - we cannot think straight. Yes, I think it's true, to some extent. I don't need to dig deep into the scientific databases to look for evidence, although as a researcher myself I like to substantiate any arguments with evidence. I have experienced myself that there are days when I don't get enough sleep (my fault, poor time management) and the next day I feel sluggish. Sometimes when I have a discussion (with students or colleagues) I have to apologise, "I'm sorry, I'm not in the right frame of mind" - or simply put, "I can't focus".

She added, "And they think that means that they (political, finance, business leaders) are so incredibly busy and productive, but the truth is they're not, because we at the moment, have had brilliant leaders in business, in finance, in politics, making terrible decisions. So a high I.Q. does not mean that you're a good leader, because the essence of leadership is being able to see the iceberg before it hits the Titanic. And we've had far too many icebergs hitting our Titanics".

Now we have good reason to have more sleep. So, I guess it's time to sleep now. Let's get enough sleep and tomorrow we can wake up fresh and we can unleash and unlock the brilliant ideas that have been dormant and tucked away in the dark corner of our brain...

Saturday, January 22, 2011

From Teaching to Learning Paradigm

"I cannot teach anybody anything; I can only make them think" – Socrates

"I never teach my pupils; I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn" – A. Einstein

In the quest to explore and probe how teaching-learning practice is best approached, I read with great interest the long (14 pages) article written by Barr & Tagg, “From Teaching to Learning – A New Paradigm for Undergraduate Teaching” which was published about 15 years ago. I was interested to get hold of the original article because it is often cited in many discussions (article/book) on student-centered learning vs teacher-centered practice. Basically in the article they compared the traditional “Instruction Paradigm” and the emerging “Learning Paradigm”. The terms are equivalent to “teacher-centered” and “student/learner-centered” that are more prevalent in the contemporary literatures.

Barr & Tagg argued that the purpose of teaching institution (schools, colleges, universities) is NOT to provide instruction (teaching) but rather to produce learning with every student by whatever means work best. They used the term “instructional paradigm” to describe the traditional “teacher-centered” classroom where the teacher talk and most students listen. They asserted that teaching/instruction is the means (method), not the end (purpose) of college education – “To say that the purpose of colleges is to provide instruction is like saying that General Motors' business is to operate assembly lines or that the purpose of medical care is to fill hospital beds (page 13)”. Their contention was, because learning and learning outcome should be the end or the purpose of any college education, the shift to learning paradigm (student-centered) is much warranted.

According to the authors, if the instruction paradigm is to teach, to lecture, and to deliver courses, then in the learning paradigm the mission is to produce learning. They preferred the word 'produce': not 'provide', not 'support', not 'encourage' but to 'produce' learning. It is a question of responsibility and it represents a shift from taking the responsibility for providing quality instruction (lecturing, talking) to taking responsibility for student learning.

Here I summarized some major points from the article:
  • In the Learning Paradigm, a college's purpose is not to transfer knowledge but to create environments and experiences that bring students to discover and construct knowledge for themselves, to make students members of communities of learners that make discoveries and solve problems, and recognizing that the chief agent in the process is the learner.
  • Learning Paradigm views faculty/teacher as primarily the designers of learning environments; they study and apply best methods for producing learning and student success.
  • Learning paradigm views teacher as a coach, rather than a sage on a stage. As a coach, not only he/she designs game plans but also create new and better "games," ones that generate more and better learning.
  • The Learning Paradigm should aim ultimately to provide students with a sufficient grasp of concepts, principles, or skills so that they can apply on new problems and situations. This involves the mastery of functional, knowledge-based intellectual frameworks rather than the short-term retention of fractionated, contextual cues.
  • Knowledge exists in each person’s mind and is shaped by individual experience.
  • Learning environments and learning are cooperative, collaborative, and supportive.
  • Empowering learning is challenging and complex.
[Adapted mainly from an article by Robert B. Barr and John Tagg, "From Teaching to Learning: A New Paradigm for Undergraduate Education", Change Magazine, Nov/Dec., 1995].

To summarize the key points, I have produced a brief presentation (in 2 parts):
  • Part 1A – A Changing Scenario of Teaching-Learning (4.07 min) and 
  • Part 1B: Student-Centered Learning – The Changing Role of Teacher & Student (4.11 min). 
[NOTE: For best view, I would suggest view in full screen by clicking the "Play in HD" button (the icon on the right of speaker icon)].

Your comments and thoughts are most welcome!

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Optimizing students’ learning

Great teachers maximize the opportunities for students to learn, but even the greatest teachers cannot guarantee learning. The final outcome of what is learned in any course will always be the students’ responsibility” – Terry Doyle, Helping Students Learn in a Student-Centered Environment.

Maximizing the opportunities – that’s the keyword – and the key to good teaching. “I choose the word opportunities because that is all any teacher can provide for his or her students”, writes Doyle in his book (page 4). This reminds me of this idiom, “you can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make him drink”. I truly agree with his view on providing the environment to create learning opportunities that optimize students’ learning. Teachers are not only responsible to teach content but also responsible to create opportunities for students to “learn how to learn”. Nobel laureate Herbert Simon put it this way: ‘‘The meaning of knowing has shifted from being able to remember and repeat information to being able to find and use it. The goal of education is better conceived as helping students develop the intellectual tools and learning strategies needed to acquire the knowledge necessary to think productively’’ (cited from Doyle).

How do we go about creating learning opportunities? This entails us (teachers) to ponder and rethink our strategies and approaches in teaching and reexamine every aspect of course planning to determine whether it will optimize our students’ learning opportunities.

Much has been written about moving from teacher-centered to learner-centered models of teaching and learning. Barr and Tagg’s in their book ‘‘From Teaching to Learning” asserted that teachers would be much more effective if, instead of focusing on their teaching, they focused on how and what their students are learning. In other words, we need to adopt a student-centered learning approach to teaching.

Creating a student-centered (or learner-centered) learning (SCL) environment has been suggested as one approach that educators can use to optimize students’ learning. In a SCL environment, the traditional roles of students (and also teachers) change dramatically. It requires students to take on new learning roles and responsibilities that go far beyond taking notes and passing tests. Students will learn that they are responsible for their learning and identify their strengths and weaknesses as learner.

Most educationists have moved beyond the notion that as a teacher—“I’m here to teach you this course”. Instead, teachers are encouraged to take on the role of learning facilitator to help students to learn through activities, exercises, and discussions. Here the philosophy might be, “We’re here to learn together and you (the students) are as much a source of our learning as I (the teacher)". In a traditional teacher-centered classroom, the teacher’s traditional role is passing on knowledge—primarily in the form of lectures—using chalk and board, overhead projector, PowerPoint presentations, readings, etc. In SCL, teacher still has these functions but also provides students with opportunities to learn independently (and from one another in a group) and coaches them with appropriate skills needed in performing the task.

In general, SCL include the followings tenets (Lee et al., 2003):
the reliance on active rather than passive learning;
an emphasis on deep learning and understanding;
increased responsibility and accountability on the part of the student;
an increased sense of autonomy in the learner;
an interdependence between teacher and learner;
mutual respect within the learner teacher relationship;
and a reflexive approach to the teaching and learning process on the part of both teacher and learner

Implementing SCL in the classroom can include techniques such as:
Substituting lectures with active learning experiences;
Assigning open-ended problems that require critical or creative thinking;
Involving students in simulations and role-play;
Assigning a variety of unconventional exercises
Collaborative group project.

Inevitably, teachers will face many challenges in implementing SCL. For example, an important feature of any student-centered classrooms is collaboration. The challenge is, how do we get them to work in groups? There are other issues as well: How do we convince them to take a deep approach so that their learning will last a lifetime, rather than a surface approach that produces learning that will fade at the end of the term? How do we get the students to take responsibility of their own learning?

Coffman in her article “Ten Strategies for Getting Students to Take Responsibilities for Their Learning” proposed the following strategies:
Ask your students why they are taking the course;
Get your students to come to class prepared;
Help your students attain the proper mindset for class;
Make participation and interaction integral parts of the course;
Make your students responsible for each other;
Teach your students to behave responsibly in groups;
Model high cognitive skills;
Have your students analyze their learning experiences;
End class in a meaningful way;
Don’t try to save your students.

I will elaborate later…

Lea, S.J., D. Stephenson, & J. Troy (2003). Higher education students' attitudes to student-centred learning: Beyond 'educational bulimia'. Studies in Higher Education, 28(3), 321-334.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

How does students' prior knowledge affect their learning

This presentation is a summary of important points from the first chapter of the book "How Learning Works - 7 Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching" by Ambrose and others. In Chapter 1 (How Does Students' Prior Knowledge Affect Their Learning) the authors discuss the importance of teachers to recognize that students bring with them prior knowledge acquired naturally through daily life activities or in prior courses they have studied. Some of the prior knowledge are relevant but some are not directly relevant. Sometimes students have misconception or inaccurate understanding of certain key principles or concepts. The authors emphasized the importance of connecting the prior knowledge with the new knowledge in order for effective learning to take place. This connection can be achieved by activating the prior knowledge at appropriate time during the learning process.

I have summarized part of Chapter 1 in the presentation below (in two parts). Each part of the presentation takes about 3 minutes. For best view, I would suggest view in full screen by clicking the "View in HD" button (the icon on the right of speaker icon).

Here's Part 1A:

Here's Part 1B:

NOTE: The presentation was produced on Macbook Pro. All softwares used are free: Microsoft PowerPoint 2011 (Mac), Voki (for narration using text-to-speech), Real Player (downloading and extracting audio), and Screenr (for screen recording). If if you have any technical question, feel free to contact me.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Education for All

Picture source: Flickr
"Education is a human right with immense power to reform. On its foundation rest the cornerstones of freedom, democracy and sustainable human development.... there is no higher priority, no mission more important, than that of Education for All" -- (Kofi Annan, 1998)

"....essential learning tools (such as literacy, oral expression, numeracy and problem solving) and the basic learning content (knowledge, skills, values and attitudes) required by human beings to be able to survive, to develop their full capacities, to live and work in dignity, to participate fully in development, to improve the quality of their lives, to make informed decisions and to continue learning" -- (World Declaration on Education for All 1990).

Nearly one quarter of the world's population live in extreme poverty, on less than the equivalent of US$ 1 per day. 70% of these people are women. 39% of the 1.3 billion people live in South Asia, 34% in East Asia and the Pacific and 17% in Africa. For the poorest one fifth of the world's population, their share of the worlds income fell from 2.3% to 1.4% in the 30 years from 1960 (Source: Learning Opportunities for All).

In the year 2000, 189 leaders from around the world met at the historic Millenium Summit in New York and came up with The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) proposal. The MDG target is to ensure that by 2015, children everywhere, boys and girls alike, will be able to complete a full course of primary schooling.

According to the then Secretary-General of the UN, Kofi Annan, the UNs role for the next millenium will be crucial; making it a focal point for joint efforts in a world that presents worrisome statistics that endanger the perpetuation of generations to come.

• 1.2 billion people live with less than US$1.00 per day.
• 800 million people are malnourished.
• 153 million children are below their ideal weight.
• 115 million children are not enrolled in school.
• 97% of these children are in developing countries.
• 64% of the worlds illiterate population are women.
• 80% of the worlds refugee population are women.
• 60% of children not enrolled in primary school are women.

Besides inadequate access to such basic essentials as personal and community security, food, health and assured basic income, poor people are deprived of adequate educational opportunities for themselves and for their children. It is estimated that over 900 million adults are illiterate; two thirds of whom are women.

Poverty is a substantive barrier to sustainable development. It limits the potential for economic growth and denies many people the opportunity to acquire knowledge and skills to enable them to participate fully in the social, economic and cultural life of their communities.

Learn more:

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Understanding How Learning Works

When it comes to teaching, most of us are still learning. Teaching is a complex activity, and yet most of us have not received formal training in pedagogy. Furthermore, teaching is a highly contextualized activity because it is shaped by the students we have, advancements in our respective fields, changes in technology, and so on. Therefore, our teaching must constantly adapt to changing parameters” -- Ambrose et al., 2010, How Learning Works.

Constructivism, behaviorism, pedagody, andragogy, Bloom Taxonomy, student-centered learning...?? I must humbly admit that, after more than 16 years teaching, I didn’t know much about the various learning theories and pedagogical aspects of teaching-learning. I’m not trained as a teacher – I’m a food technologist. My only experience in teaching was teaching my friends and a short stint teaching in a private school (secondary level). Soon after I completed my Ph.D. in Food Technology, I came back and joined the university as a lecturer – and I didn’t have the slightest idea of how to teach the adult students! I think most university lecturers (except those from education background) do not have sufficient knowledge and exposure on pedagogy, learning theory or instructional methods. Of course, there are “induction” courses and other programs conducted by the university for young lecturers but these are still largely inadequate to equip them to become good educators. So we end up using our best teacher/lecturer during our school/university days as a role model and try to emulate them.

It is clear to me how much more there is to learn, how much more there is to do. The knowledge in the subject matter alone is not sufficient for effective teaching. Developing mastery in teaching is a continuous learning process. Therefore, I continue to learn and enrich my knowledge so that I can be a better teacher for my students. Not having a formal training in teaching is not an excuse for not doing anything to improve my teaching skills. I know that if I want to improve my teaching and enhance students’ learning, it is useful to understand what research says about how learning works and about how to foster learning. To achieve this aim, I try to read as many books and articles on teaching and learning philosophy. I’m constantly on the lookout for a book which can explain and summarise the philosophy of learning in a simplest manner without ambiguous jargons that distract the unmotivated readers.

To my delight, recently I found two books which fulfil my criteria – simple, concise, straight to the point, well organized, and clearly written. Here I’d like to write a bit about the first book which I’m still reading – How Learning Works: 7 Research-based Principles for Smart Teaching. The authors are principally from Carnege Mellons' Centre for Teaching Excellence (S.A. Ambrose, M. Dipietro, M.C. Lovett, M.K. Norman), and also including one (M.W. Bridges) from the University of Pittsburgh.

The book is organized around seven learning principles: (1) Students’ prior knowledge can help or hinder learning; (2) How students organize knowledge influences how they learn and apply what they know; (3) Students’ motivation determines, directs, and sustains what they do to learn; (4) To develop mastery, students must acquire component skills, practice integrating them, and know when to apply what they have learned; (5) Goal-directed practice coupled with targeted feedback enhances the quality of students’ learning; (6) Students’ current level of development interacts with the social, emotional, and intellectual climate of the course to impact learning; (7) To become self-directed learners, students must learn to monitor and adjust their approaches to learning.

Each learning principle forms a stand-alone chapter (so there are 7 chapters); each chapter is further expanded with a discussion of the research that supports them, their implications for teaching, and a set of instructional strategies targeting each principle. Clear understanding of all the seven principles would help teachers (a) to see why certain teaching approaches are or are not supporting students’ learning, (b) generate or refine teaching approaches and strategies that more effectively foster student learning in specific contexts, and (c) transfer and apply these principles to new courses.

I especially like the approach taken by the authors to start each chapter with stories that represent typical teaching situation. Under a heading “What Principle of Learning is at Work Here?” the stories are analysed to identify the core problems or issues involved and use them to introduce the learning principle relevant to those problems. The learning principle is discussed and elaborated in relation to the research that underlies it. Finally, the authors provide a set of strategies to help teachers to design instruction with that principle in mind.

I would recommend all educators to read this book! I hope to find time to summarize the important points of each chapter in the form of PowerPoint presentation which I will upload to YouTube or Slideshare. Follow me to get the update!

Monday, January 10, 2011

Teaching one child at a time

"If someone is going down the wrong road, he doesn’t need motivation to speed him up. What he needs is education to turn him around" – Jim Rohn.

"The important thing is not so much that every child should be taught, as that every child should be given the wish to learn" - John Lubbock.

In the TED talks, Shukla Bose tells the story of educating the poor in India’s slums through her groundbreaking Parikrma Humanity Foundation which brings education to the deprived group. As Bose puts it, the goal of the foundation is to help build a better India by tapping its greatest strength: the vitality and potential of its people. "Education of children is at the core of our aim to transform poor communities into self-sustaining, contributing communities, says Bose.  The vision is to see every street and slum child gets the opportunity and access to education. She adds"We also believe that it's the content that is more important…it's not the infrastructure, not the toilet, not the library, but it's what actually happens in the school, that is more important, creating the environment of learning, of enquiry, of exploration,…is what is true education". (Alternatively, you can watch her presentation at the TED website and read the discussion thread about the presentation).

Another example of unsung hero is Master Ayub, who has taken the initiative of running an open air school for the children of slum dwellers in Islamabad, Pakistan. He has transformed the lives of these poor kids with virtually no help from the government.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Lighting the Spark of Learning

"There are places on Earth, in every country where, for various reasons, good schools cannot be built and good teachers cannot or do not want to go. And those places, as it turns out, is often where trouble comes from" – Sugata Mitra.

The title of this posting is taken from the “Hole-in-the-Wall” website. Hole-in-the-Wall is a famous experiment conducted in 1999 by Professor Sugata Mitra and his research in a slum area in New Dehli, India to prove that kids (in this case deprived kids) could teach themselves and learn on their own without any formal training. In this experiment, a computer was embedded in a wall and connected to high speed internet and left it there. True enough, curious children were immediately crowded around the computer and “playing” with it. Within hours and without instruction, children began browsing the Web. "I repeated the experiment across India and noticed that children will learn to do what they want to learn to do", said Mitra. Follow up experiments suggest children around the world can learn complex tasks quickly with little supervision. During his TED talk Prof Mitra quoted Arthur C Clarke, "when learners have interest, learning happens".

"Once children learn how to learn, nothing is going to narrow their mind. The essence of teaching is to make learning contagious, to have one idea spark another" - Marva Collins.

Watch Professor Mitra's interesting TED Talks on the experiment and the implication of the findings on education.

Here's a few interesting links to learn more about "Hole-in-the-Wall" project:

How to make teaching come alive by professor Lewin@MIT

It's a 9.5 min video but worth watching and listening. I must admit that I'm inspired by his dedication to teaching. Some excerpt from his talk: "Teaching has always been one of the greatest and most satisfying experiences in my life. Through the wonders of teaching we can reveal the hidden beauty to our students. Knowledge does not narrow, knowledge only adds...and without knowledge many experience in life remain very narrow and very shallow - and that include the appreciation for art".

Thursday, January 6, 2011

No place for chalk and board?

 "If we teach today's students as we taught yesterday's, we rob them of tomorrow"
-- John Dewey.

Much has been written about integrating technology into a classroom. The question that is usually asked is, is it really necessary - is it really useful? In my opinion, the traditional approach of chalk and board still has its place but I strongly believe that educational technology could offer myriad of pedagogical benefits. Technology today, in various forms, have grown tremendously and have permeated all areas of our lives. Similarly, students today are connected in ways that previous generations could never have imagined and this has a direct implication on how they learn and impacted on how teachers teach in a classroom. So it makes sense to connect with our students in ways they already familiar. It is incomprehensible if educators today are still reluctant to use technology in teaching and learning activities or still perceive technology negatively. Of course, as most things in life, we should be cognizant of the shortcomings and over dependent on technology. Too much of a good thing also runs the risk of becoming ineffective. Technology should always be used in tandem with sound pedagogical principles. It's NOT THE ONLY thing, but it will add value. It would never replace good teacher!

How can traditional modes of classroom instruction engage and inspire students when life outside the classroom has changed so dramatically? I believe in leveraging technology available to enhance educational experiences of my students. Although I teach a full time course (face-to-face), I also supplement some topics of the lecture in the form of online (virtual) lecture. This is done to further enhance understanding of certain difficult concepts or to discuss more examples which otherwise not covered in the classroom due to time constraint. Preparing some lectures as online lecture also serve a few functions: (1) I can ask the student to view the lecture before the class (normal face-to-face lecture) so that I can use the class time for more discussion and interaction; (2) student can review the lecture at their convenience.

The online lecture is done in the form of PowerPoint presentation (converted into Flash format) using my favorite rapid authoring tool, Articulate Presenter. Flash format is essential because the file size is much smaller than the native PPT file – this is important for fast access and to cater for slow internet connection. A software such as Articulate Presenter (which is part of Articulate Studio suite) is called “Rapid Authoring Software” which allows non-techie like me to develop e-learning course easily – and rapidly! In most cases the lecture is combined with narration and sometimes including the “talking head”. To be honest, preparation of good online lecture is strenous and time consuming. It involves preparation of the slides, script for each slide, recording and editing the video, recording the audio and finally combining everything into a single presentation. However, with regular practice, the process of preparing online lecture would become easier and faster.

How useful is the online lecture? Used wisely and sparingly, online lecture can be used effectively to add another dimension to the classroom lecture. The students can view the presentation repeatedly either for revision or to get better understanding of the process. This is a great way to add value to the classroom teaching because very often the time to cover even the important aspects of the course is very limited. It is advisable that each online lecture be limited to 10 minutes. For a longer lecture then you can divide it into a few 10 minutes segment.

I’m teaching science and technology subject (food science/technology) – a subject which requires practical approach. While many food science/food processing concepts can be learned in a classroom they can be greatly enhanced by reaching beyond the walls of a lecture room. One cannot teach a course on food processing just by showing the flow chart and perhaps some pictures. Likewise, it is not sufficient to explain the principles and the step-by-step procedure in certain analytical method. In an ideal situation, it is best to teach a principle or concept by hands-on approach or by a direct demonstration. Imagine teaching a student about Lane-Eynon titration to determine reducing sugar. Being an empirical method and the reaction is nonstoichiometry, strict adherence to the procedure is critical in order to obtain good results. A video recording of the whole experiment can be made and critical steps of the titration can be highlighted. This would avoid students making unnecessary mistakes or systematic errors in carrying out analytical procedure. Similarly, when teaching food processing operation (e.g., extraction and refining of vegetable oils), each step of the process can be recorded in visual form and combined with narration. When I teach about production of snack foods, I can explain the sequence of the process and showing the picture and video clip of each stage of the process. These examples represent a different form of pedagogy (teaching methods) that can be fully utilised for effective teaching and eventually will greatly benefit the students.

So let's embrace technology but don't forget the low-tech but time-tested chalk and board!

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Aha...I stumbled upon this tool called Voki - it offers a free speaking avatar. Voki is a free service that allows you to create personalized speaking avatars and use them on your blog, profile, and in email messages. To hear the message, simply click on the arrow in the frame below. Here's an article describing how avatar can be used in education. Get a Voki now!

Monday, January 3, 2011

Doing a literature review

I not only use all the brains that I have, but all that I can borrow – Woodrow Wilson.

Embarking on a new research project is very much like getting into unknown or unfamiliar territory. Therefore, the first thing you need to do is to carry out a proper and thorough background research. This will help you to become more familiar with your topic and introduce you to any other research which will be of benefit to you when you begin your own project. To do that efficiently, you need a plan. If you plunge into any available sources on your topic, you risk losing yourself in an endless trail of books and articles!

What is “literature”? It can be defined as a collection of all the scholarly writings on a topic (Fink, 1998). To put it simply, literature is about telling a story, sort of an interconnected chain story where each writer starts with a partial story created previously by others and expand on it…the existing literature is the story so far…So, doing a literature review is basically a systematic method for identifying, evaluating and interpreting the work produced by researchers, scholars and practitioners.

There are many reasons for doing the literature review but the bottom line is it would enable the researcher to formulate new idea that would contribute to new knowledge in the field, rather than reinventing the wheel.

Here are a few slides to summarize different stages in doing a literature review.

The full presentation can be found here:

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Managing Graduate Student-Supervisor Relationship

I presented this topic recently in a Postgraduate Colloquium organised by the School of Management, Universiti Sains Malaysia (Penang, Malaysia). The participants were largely new graduate students but there were also some senior students. Briefly I covered the common issues, elements, roles, and stages of development associated with supervision along with practical strategies for nurturing rewarding relationships with graduate students.

Supervision of graduate students is a challenging journey that the supervisor (advisor) and the student embark on together. It includes not only academic guidance, but also prolonged nurturing of the student's personal, scholarly, and professional development. From my perspective as a supervisor, the experience of supervising graduate students is doubtless very challenging but also very rewarding. Watching a fresh graduate become an independent scholar, plan the project, execute the plan with care and thoughtfulness, write up the results and present their first published paper at a conference is a wonderful and satisfying experience.

Using the online poll which I described in my previous post, I asked a few questions to the audience to gauge their view on certain issues. One of the questions was how they view the relationship with their supervisor should be (see below). Majority of students obviously regard the relationship as a mentor-apprentice type. Personally I prefer to view the relationship between graduate student and supervisor as a collaboration or partnership – so as in other kind of partnership, to make it sustainable and successful, it requires that every part be concerned, not only with its own benefits, but also with the benefits of the other part. In addition, it also demands genuine effort from each part to understand the motivations of the other and contribute consistently to their fulfillment.

There is perhaps no single magic formula for a successful student-supervisor relationship – nevertheless, there are certain general practices that can be used as guidelines. Rugg and Petre in their book, “The Unwritten Rules of PhD Research” emphasized the importance of compatability in order for the relationship to be fruitful. “The relationship between student and supervisor is about as close as many marriages, and lasts as long as many marriages. It’s a fairly good analogy in several ways. One important issue is compatibility”.  It is indeed very important element because compatibility would result in synergies that constitute the very essence of productive research collaboration. The authors also opined that the relationship should take the form of mentor-apprentice – “It’s not your supervisor’s job to put up with every unpleasant idiosyncrasy of every idiot who wants to do a PhD with them. As a student, you are an apprentice, not a customer who is always right”.

James and Baldwin (Eleven Practices of Effective Postgraduate Supervisors, the University of Melbourne) listed eleven practices of effective PhD supervisors which presumably would result in successful supervision of graduate students. I reproduced (verbatim) the eleven practices here: Foundation phase: (1) ensure the partnership is right for the project; (2) get to know students and carefully assess their needs; (3) establish reasonable, agreed expectations; (4) work with students to establish a strong conceptual structure and research plan; Momentum phase: (5) encourage students to write early and often; (6) initiate regular contact and provide high quality feedback; (6) get students involved in the life of the department; (7) inspire and motivate; (8) help if academic and personal crises crop up; Final stages: (9) take an active interest in students’ future careers; (10) carefully monitor the final production and presentation of the research.

In my presentation (see links below), I discussed about possible approaches and strategies and flags potential problems that can undermine or can even be fatal to the relationship. The points presented are based on my own observation and consistent pattern that have emerged over the years and also distilled from books and other references.

I would like to hear some feedback from graduate students and also supervisors on how best to manage the relationship in order to achieve a successful and fruitful outcome.