Instructional Technology: The Psychology of a Psychology Course
2003 marks my son's first year in university. He was accepted into the Commerce Program at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. He's worked hard and has earned the right to a higher education. His high-school average was quite high and he won the Economics Scholarship. He was also at the younger end of the now infamous double cohort. What we're finding, however, is that we no longer understand what the word "higher" has to do with a university education…
The double-cohort in Ontario essentially means that after an poorly implemented curriculum "innovation" twice as many high school students were competing for university admission in the fall of 2003. Ontario universities did everything possible to try and accommodate the influx. One would expect comprises in situations like this, yet some of these compromises are difficult if not impossible to accept.
My son decided to take Psychology as an elective and has now completed one full term. The means by which this course is delivered is not only an example of the worst use of technology, but it is even questionable to refer to it as education or teaching at all. One is left to wonder how a profession that purports to scientifically study mental processes and behaviours could implement such a poor and perhaps detrimental learning environment.
The Video Professor
Twice per week my son joins a group of students in a barren classroom setting. The professor has never appeared in real life, not once, but instead delivers lectures via videotape. The students watch the videotape and take notes. Once per week a seminar takes place with the aid of a teaching assistant to help answer any questions about the videotape or the required reading. All evaluations have taken the form of computerized multiple choice tests - a trite form of assessment that often has more to do with word games than it does knowledge. While my son is sitting in the classroom with his classmates, identical "lectures" are taking place simultaneously in other parts of the campus and after looking at the course calendar it is clear that these "lectures" are being presented to thousands of students. What we are in fact viewing here is a new problem complicating the problem of overcrowding.
I wonder if anyone is this Psychology Department researching the debilitating effects on learning and the victimization they are fostering on their own turf? Isn't this really a way to promote learned helplessness? Isn't it odd that experiences like this would originate in a Psychology Department - an area of expertise that embraces the mind?
The Instructional Design of Desperate Measures
The Psychology Department at McMaster Universitypromotes the following:
As scientists, experimental psychologists conduct research to help understand why people think, feel, and behave the way they do. As clinicians, counsellors, or other practitioners, psychologists apply scientific understanding toward helping individuals, institutions, and society deal with issues relating to human behaviour and happiness.
The implication is that "helping individuals, institutions, and society deal with issues relating to human behaviour and happiness" can be achieved, at least in the first year of study, by watching videos. Of course, the University has struggled to make the best of a bad situation they did not create - they can only react to the ineptitude of our former provincial government. So to accommodate more and more students on fewer and fewer resources they could only look to desperate measures. But if we separate the conditions leading to this kind of classroom experience and look at its effects, it is clear that this form of instructional design has little to do with the promotion of learning.
When my son asks me why we have to pay for this I have no answer that will satisfy him. He recalls high school with pleasure and notes the relationships he was able to build with his teachers - this human interaction was key for him as it is for all of us. We do accept that he must complete the university course and move on regardless of what we might think about it. His solution has been to skip classes, read the textbook and write the exams - he doesn’t even need to show up anymore - and his marks are just fine.
His motivation, however, has been rocked to the core and his interest in Psychology is waning due only to the insufferable boredom in its presentation. All we can do is hope that somehow the successive years will be better in the Darwinian maze of the university - I think the survivors of this nonsense get to meet real people eventually. If the medium is the message, then both the medium and the message, in this context, are stupid. It's not even a good movie theatre and we can get into those for $12. Any professor that believes this experience has anything to do with learning, education or teaching is one to avoid. My son is now researching professors to study with, rather than courses to take. This is probably a much better path, that is, finding interesting people to work with and not being too concerned about what their area of expertise is.
The Psychological Design of Insufferable Boredom
Is the problem with the study of Psychology? No. There are many interesting things to be discovered here. Is the problem precisely located with the professor who has taped his lectures? No. What else is he supposed to do - e-Learning (I hope not - but it does worry me - I can just see WebCT fodder emerging out of this morass and presented as some kind of "solution")?
In an interview for a magazine article a number of years ago I remarked that technology is not a replacement for real living breathing teachers. It still isn't and never will be, but that is not to say we won't make it so. It's happening at McMaster University. Our ability to delude ourselves is seemingly infinite; when do we simply stop and say, "Enough is enough." Or more to the point, "When do we take out this trash?"
The Instructional Design of Waiting
Another theme has emerged in my discussions with my son about his experiences in first year undergraduate studies. Higher education, in the broadest sense of that phrase, is fundamentally important to our world. It is a cherished resource and a universal right and responsibility. It is precisely because of this bias of mine that I believe we should be taking a hard look at it.
My son and I have been told that the Commerce Program at McMaster University doesn't get "good" until the second year. A friend of mine who graduated from this same program disagrees - he feels it's the third year. So in purely economic terms that would mean that $12,000 to $24,000 is being spent on something that is "less than good." We might submissively say that it's all what we make of it, but that response just isn't good enough.
There is a rumour that the first year is a "weeding out" year. Weeding out what? Indeed, there are students that take to partying too much and do not assume enough responsibility for their own education. They plant the seeds of their own demise. But this isn't the norm. Is it that weeding out must take place before the program gets "good?" Is weeding out merely a means to capture a large number of tuition payments?
Perhaps we can also look at weeding out as a means to eliminate those that will not submit themselves to the established norms for education at the university. At the same time I saw a number of my friends in my own undergraduate studies decide to quit not because they couldn't handle the courses, but because they didn't want to. They couldn't see the relevance. They couldn't see what the value might be to their own lives. While I would admit that some of them didn't try hard enough to seek relevance, I would also have to say that the university did little to help reveal it.
There are some key questions that need to be addressed:
Isn't the issue more accurately that some university courses are not flexibile enough to adjust and adapt to the unique interests, talents, abilities and creative capacities of the students in them?
When do we give the learners a voice beyond merely rating professors through these reputation systems we're so interested in?
Should not courses result in new knowledge and new perspectives that can be shared in successive courses rather than being limited to transmitting established information?
When do we stop under-estimating our youth and embrace them as people who have important ideas to offer us?
Do we really believe that because we are older and more experienced that that has something to do with being smarter or more intelligent?
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