Sunday, May 26, 2013

Professor for one year (week 7): What is good teaching?

Universities start to hand out "teaching awards".  It's interesting to look at the criteria.

At the University of Zurich, this year's teaching award focused on supporting students during writing a research paper.  The lecturer definitely deserves the award.

However, some statements in the news report made me wonder:  Offering feedback to students' writing, encouraging critical thinking, treating students as prospective colleagues -- isn't that something all lecturers should always aim for in all lectures?  Why is it something special if someone emphasizes self-directed learning?  Why is it notable if someone asks students to hand in a first draft for getting feedback before submitting the final paper?  Why is it surprising that students like challenges?

In my seminars, students have to submit a handout for presentations.  They submit a first version, get feedback, and then the revised version is graded and distributed to all students.  For seminar papers, I demand a proposal including the research question, proposed approaches, and relevant literature.  We then talk about it to improve the problem statement, I recommend further literature, and we discuss the outline of the paper. 

The topics are generally defined rather loosely, giving students the opportunity to make connections to their “other” interests (either outside university or from a different subject) and forcing them to come up with a concrete project proposal themselves.  This requires them to define criteria to estimate success or failure of their project.  This also allows students to judge their own results.  Students rate my courses as challenging but very helpful for understanding a new topic and developing general academic skills.

I always thought, supporting students' learning processes is one of the major tasks of a professor.  Apparently, you can even get an award for your daily work.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Professor for one year (week 6): Maybe the "e" in e-learning in fact stands for "evil"?

These days, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are discussed widely.  They are a success story and they are criticized.  The aspect of "massive" leads to audiences of several thousand students, the aspect of "open" suggests that no tuition has to be paid for attending these courses.  The rest, i.e., "online courses", is a rather old concept.

The development of online courses was one of the key factors of "E-Learning".  Roughly ten years ago, a lot of tax payers' money went into such projects.  Online courses were developed to suit the needs of growing student numbers and to make use of the Internet for teaching ("learn anything, anywhere, anytime").  Students could attend these courses as a replacement for traditional face-to-face lectures.  For example MiLCA was supposed to facilitate learning computational linguistics.  It was developed at the University of Tübingen and some students from the University of Zurich successfully completed the course as part of their studies in Zurich.  However, this was pre-Bologna, i.e., for most of the courses during your studies, there were no formal exams.

Some of these courses are still in use and some universities extend these courses into MOOCs, like the University of Marburg.  They aim to make these courses count towards a BA or MA degree, which means you can earn credit points.

And here the problems start:  To earn credits towards your degree, the attended course has to fit the concept of your study program.  As I wrote last week, the concept of what a module is, differs from university to university.  There might be certain requirements for successfully completing a module like compulsory attendance or an oral exam.  How does that fit into the concept of an online course?  Can a certificate stating completing the online course on phonetics from University of Marburg be used as a replacement for the phonetics course at the University of Konstanz?  Which of the two universities is responsible for quality management?  Who can define how many credit a student can earn?

A colleague even told me that some universities already face a rather odd situation: Students collect online course certificates fitting the overall curriculum of a specific study program and thus avoid attending these courses at their home institution -- i.e., they avoid rather challenging exams, but they want to be awarded the more prestigious degree of that institution.

So if a university starts to accept certificates from online courses offered by other institutions, they open Pandora's box.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Professor for one year (week 5): A module is a module is a module

At the end of the last century, the Bologna process was started.  Studying today is very different from studying some decades ago.  New terms and rules were introduced, names of academic degrees were changed, students should be encouraged to spend some time at other universities, etc.  When you finish your studies, you will receive a Bachelor's degree after three years.  You can then extend your studies by graduating in order to get a Master's degree.  And after this you can do a PhD.  “Bachelor” and “Master” have replaced the German or Swiss “Vordiplom” or “Zwischenprüfung” and the “Lizentiat,” “Diplom,” and “Magister.”

The Bachelor's degree was also intended to allow students to leave university after only a few years, but with a degree instead of as drop-out students.  However, nobody knew whether these new degrees would be accepted by employers.  Switzerland therefore decided to have the Master's degree as the regular graduation degree – the Bachelor's degree is only meant as an intermediary degree, but can be useful if students decide to leave university for some years to get practical experience.

One consequence is that there are only loose requirements concerning the Bachelor's degree if you apply for a Master's program in Switzerland – you merely need a “relevant” Master's degree.  In some universities you can even start attending Master's courses and earn credit points towards your Master's degree before finishing your Bachelor's studies.  I always have students fill out a short survey in the very first lecture; among other things, I ask what they study and in which semester they are.  In Basel, some students stated that they are in a Master's program in the 12th semester – which translates to “I have been studying for 12 semesters and I am now doing a Master's program.”  It's not the 12th semester of this Master's program.  Students see the Bachelor as an intermediary degree.  Often you even don't have to write a Bachelor's thesis.  Which is really strange for studies in the humanities and arts:  You leave university with a degree but you never worked on a longer project or wrote a thesis (i.e., a paper exceeding 20 pages).

In contrast, in Germany the Bachelor's degree is a recognized graduation degree.  For entering a Master's program, you need a "good" Bachelor's degree (grade 2.5 or better on a scale from 5 to 1 with 1 being the highest grade), even if this is not a program with restricted admission (numerus clausus).  So, only the best students are allowed to pursue their studies.  As one consequence, the drop-out rate in German Master's programs is very low.

So, from the administrative perspective, a Bachelor's degree in Germany and in Switzerland means something different.

Another new concept is the “module.”  You have to earn a certain amount of credit points in each of the modules that make up your program.  The modules appear on your transcript of records.  Modularization is intended to make it easier to study some time at another university and to get credit for those courses at your home university.  Of course this would mean that modules in Computer Science or Spanish Literature or Theoretical Physics at different universities are comparable or even equivalent in terms of content, achievable competencies, and time and effort.

So far I have taught at the University of Zurich, the University of Basel (both are Swiss Universities), the University of Konstanz (Germany), and I was E-Learning consultant at the School of Social Work at the University of Applied Sciences Northwestern Switzerland.

At the University of Zurich, a lecture or seminar is equivalent to a module.  Modules are defined in study regulations that have to be approved by the Faculty.  Which means: it is not that easy to change the title, the credit points, or the scope of a module.  If there was a certain course before Bologna, e.g., “Introduction to Programming for Computational Linguists,” this course still exists and is now a module.  Module names and lecture names are identical.  Some introductury lectures used to span several semesters like “Introduction to Computational Linguistics I” and “Introduction to Computational Linguistics II.”  This resulted in the creation of two modules with these names, each containing exact one lecture (and a lab course) of exactly the same name –  wouldn't it made have sense to create one module “Introduction to Computational Linguistics” containing two lectures to be attend in two consecutive semesters?  Well, apparently they didn't think so in Zurich.

As a consequence, a module is worth 3 to 6 credit points, and you have to do a lot of modules to obtain a degree.  From the institutional point of view, this makes it difficult to have courses offered by adjunct lecturers or courses on special topics.  How to create a module with a rather vague name or with a title allowing for change?  It's also difficult if you would like to allow students to earn credits from small projects as part of research projects, from contributing to publications, or from presenting their projects at workshops or conferences.  This shouldn't be mandatory for all students.

At the School of Social Work at the University of Applied Sciences Northwestern Switzerland, they created a study program from scratch:  Modules are intended to enable students to acquire a set of competences.  A module may cover several semesters, some modules even run through your entire Bachelor's program.  During a semester, students attend certain courses.  However, the concept of a course has been redefined:  There is no longer one lecturer teaching a whole course over 15 weeks.  The lecturer responsible for a module defines learning objectives and an overall theme for a certain course.  Then he invites colleagues to contribute to this course by teaching one or two sessions within this course.  As a student, you are faced with another lecturer each week; as a lecturer, you teach on your area of expertise in various courses.  This concept involves a lot of organisational effort, but I consider it to be a good implementation of the general idea of modules.

At the University of Konstanz, the concept of modules in the Linguistic Department seems to follow the categorization of introductory, intermediate, and advanced courses which would have been named “Proseminar,” “Seminar,” and “Hauptseminar” in the old system.  For some modules all courses are mandatory, for most of the modules you have to earn a certain number of credits but you can choose from a range of courses.  You only have to pass a small number of modules during your studies.  In my surveys, some students thus stated that they are attending my class “to get the last credits needed to pass module 3.”  In the advanced modules there is always a course named “Current Topics in X” allowing to allocate invited, one-of courses by experts – for example, I teach “Methods and Applications in Automatic Authoring Support” this semester as an instance of “Current Topics in Speech and Language Processing.”  This implementation of Bologna is a little more conservative, but also makes sense.  It counters the criticism that university studies are overly regulated, as it allows students to decide on their own which courses they want to take in order to gain the required credits.

Of course, universities should be free to interpret “Bologna.”  However, some interpretations make more sense than others.  Clearly, having different interpretations of “Bologna” also reduces the interoperability of courses and the mobility of students.


Sunday, May 5, 2013

Professor for one year (week 4): Talking to myself via e-mail

Did you ever receive e-mail messages where the sender included themselves in the CC?  Sometimes this address is exactly the same as the sender address (and you are wondering if their mail program would not be able to store sent messages), sometimes it's another address of the sender -- for example someone is writing you from a personal account and set his university account in the CC.

A small-scale non-representative empirical study revealed that most of the people cc-ing a message to themselves are professors.

When I was assigned a university mail account, I added this to my mail reader.  I use Ma Gnus v0.6  in Emacs 24.2.  I received the first messages and answered some.  When I looked at my inbox again, I discovered that I had sent myself some messages!

I tested a bit and it turned out that when answering messages to my university account, a CC to myself was added automatically.  When I answered messages to my private account, no CC to myself was added.  Magical!  My Gnus could distinguish my private from my professorial self.

The solution then was easy: I always use "S W" (wide reply and yank) and then maybe exclude addressees.  It's less error prone than deciding whether to use "R" (reply) or "S W" for every answer and then in most of the cases where you should have pressed the "reply to all"-button will send it to one addressee only.

But then you have to include something like this in your .gnus to prevent talking to yourself:

(setq message-dont-reply-to-names
      (mapconcat 'regexp-quote '("cerstin@mahlow.ch"
                 "cerstin.mahlow@uni-konstanz.de") "\\|"))