A problem with learning outcomes… and mayby curriculum in general

A line through 20 points?
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Having clear learning goals in a course has been a great step forward for education.  In courses where this practise is used (and used well) students know exactly what they will be able to do if they successfully learn the material in the course. There is also a clearer view of what the practical requirements are for what they have to do to prove that they have learnt what they are supposed to learn.

The problem comes when you don’t really agree with the learning outcomes of a course. Now, I know that any course contains core material, but at the same time students should have the freedom to decide what they concentrate on. For example:

I am currently taking a course called “Numerical Approximation and Discretization”. The learning goals boil down to “understanding, selecting, utilizing, assessing and creating” different Numerical Approximation techniques.studying

Now, I will never have a career in numerical approximation. However, I might find it useful to understand and select techniques of numerical approximation in some future research that I do. I will probably never have to create my own technique so why should I learn how to do it? Or even more importantly, why should I be assessed on my ability to do that? Would it not be possible for us to be provided with a range of possible learning outcomes for a course and let us choose the ones that we want to pursue? Those can then be tested more rigorously. We would still be exposed to the other things, but will be allowed to concentrate on that which we are passionate about. I don’t think that this is that far fetched, for instance I already get to choose the courses in the program that interest me, why not have a choice over the goals within those courses?

I know that any form of granularity makes a professor or curriculum committee’s job much harder. However, in courses where assessment is already based around certain outcomes I feel it would not be too difficult to weight assessments based on the student’s preference in outcomes.

It all really boils down to this: Should students have some kind of input on their goals learning goals for a specific subject, or is that something that should only be decided by a curriculum committee?

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The problem with grades

Yesterday I followed a link from D’Arcy Norman to this article in the Globe and Mail about a professor who was fired because he gave all of his students A+ grades so that they could focus on the learning instead of worrying about grades. While reading the very humorous comments I stumbled across a reference to this Calvin and Hobbes comic:

© Universal Press Syndicate
© Universal Press Syndicate

It highlights what I hate most about the way the world conducts education.

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Learning tools for 2008/2009… revised!

So my last post was a bit premature. Here are some of the revisons to the plan:

1)  OneNote has failed me. It worked so well in my previous classes, but I am finding it useless at the moment. Why? Well the lectures are carried out differently. In my previous classes the PDFs required a lot of diagrams and annotations… OneNote handled that perfectly. However, at the moment all the PDFs that I get are pretty self-contained, the only thing I need to do is summarize and organize the material in them.

2) So in order to replace OneNote, I am using FreeMind  again. I think the reason that I didn’t enjoy FreeMind when I used it last year was that I didn’t have a system for icons and decoration. Now that I have a system (and another mindmap to remind me what my system is)! I am really enjoying taking notes on FreeMind. Below are some pictures of the start of my maps:

CPSC 344 HCI.1

Here is my “cheatsheet” map telling what all the icons mean (as I come accross a new type of content I just choose and icon and add it to this sheet so that  don’t forget the mapping).


3)I’m probably not going to use the map on my wall, just due to the fact that I have the FreeMInd maps now. I might start printing them though and stick them up!



Fickle… I know. But hey, in order to succeed we need to try new things!

My learning tools for 2008/2009

So I’ve now had a week of classes. It feels great to be learning again after 8 months of solid work. Since I last wrote a similar post to this I have a gained a much better perspective on all the tools out there and know what works for me and what doesn’t. So, here goes my big bad list of learning tools for university:

Microsoft Office OneNote:

I cannot find any note-taking software that comes even close to OneNote’s ability to keep notes for school. The three levels of navigation and ease of printing PDFs straight to OneNote (seeing as almost all professors insist on delivering their notes in PDF and note HTML) puts OneNote ahead of everything else. I would desperately like to use EverNote (because I can use it from more places than my personal computers with OneNote installed), but it doesn’t let me scribble all over course PDFs like OneNote does.

Mind Mapping:

My big mind map
Last year I tried out FreeMind as a means of organizing notes after they were taken. It was great software and worked pretty well, but I just didn’t enjoy using it. I think that the limits of current screen sizes is what makes virtual mind maps so difficult. I just felt like I could never see the full picture and the detail at the same time (which, I believe is something mind maps should let you do). So instead I went lo-tech and have taped a giant white piece of paper to my wall that I will use to map and connect all of my courses on. It is a new experiment, let’s see if it works! I might also resort to using FreeMind again especially for the guest lecturers that are going to be coming in to my Software Engineering Course as there won’t be any predefined lecture notes that I can annotate in OneNote.

To-do lists:

I tried Remember the Milk a few months ago and for some reason it just didn’t stick. I revisited it about three weeks ago and now find it invaluable. The big change I think is that you can embed your to-do lists everywhere! I have my list in my gMail, my iGoogle, my Google Calendar my iPhone and on my desktop. I can send tasks to it using Jott. I find that if my to-do lists are not in my face I forget to look at them. With Remember the Milk I can have a constant reminder.

Remember the milk lets you categorize items, add recurring items (a great one is “pay bills”) and lets you know when things are overdue. Remembering to hand in an assignment, or study for a midterm will be a whole lot easier with Remember the Milk.


Most courses require some degree of memorization. Quizlet is so much better than any other online flashcard app that I have tried. It gained me plenty of marks last year and everyone that I know who uses Quizlet swears by it. It is easy and fun to use. It is collaborative. It has tests. It will soon have an iPhone app. Enough said.

Time Management:

Google Calendar is possibly the greatest tool ever. My life would be incomplete without it. I actually have over 15 calendars in there that I use to organize my life and keep track of the people around me.

Collaborative Projects:

I’m already using Google Apps for my work on the Student Leadership Conference, so I will probably use that (if my team agrees that is) in my Software Engineering and Human-Computer Interfacing projects. I’m still looking for a good collaborative way to do UML diagrams, seeing as how expensive Gliffy has become.

Pen and Paper:

For my Math courses I’m going the old fashioned notebook route. I really don’t see any other way (seeing as I don’t have a tablet PC). Hopefully the big mind map will compliment it nicely though and maybe help to make some connections between the three Math courses that I am taking.

I will monitor the effectiveness of all of these tools and update depending on what works and what doesn’t (or if I find something around the internet that blows one of these out of the water).

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Three flavors of course blogs, very yummy…

In a comment on my post “who owns a class blog Jim Groom said:

That is the rub, when you open up a system like this, there are a number of ways of going at it, and having the ability to meet as many of them easily makes your life simpler.

I agree whole-heartedly with Jim. My judgment has been clouded lately by the Wp-o-matic’s ability lack of to update posts on the fly and the lack of a “delete all” button on any of WordPress’ pages. Today though, I saw the light. I now have a clear vision of three simple, definable, student driven course blog structures.

  1. The ghost blog:

  2. This blog is for the professor who doesn’t want to be confused by hundreds of student posts knocking around his/her blog. The blog simply uses BDPRSS and my add-to-BDPRSS widget (source code coming soon I promise) to populate a WordPress page with aggregated student entries. When another year of students comes, the old posts will still be there (or not, or in another blog that that the new blog links to), but as newer posts come in, the old posts will fall off of the bottom of the feed and the blog will have just new fresh content. No having to delete anything!

  3. The Communal blog:

  4. This blog is for the professor who wants to get stuck into the blogging experience with the students. This also probably the easiest (although I used to think it was the hardest) to implement. Jim reminded me of the “Add Sidebar Users” widget, which I will tweak slightly to make setting up this kind of blog super easy. Our new blogging service will allow students to sign up as just subscribers if they want to and with Campus Wide Login they won’t even have to remember their username. Zero work for the professor!

  5. The spam blog:

  6. Jim did great things with WP-o-matic. I found a tool that works even better for what we want to do (in fact, it is the one thing that I can now do better than the current incarnation of eduglu). FeedWordPress by Charles Johnson is another spamblogger that updates entries if they change in the feed. The biggest problem that I had with other versions of spam blogging tools was that they took dynamic content, republished it and then made it static. This might work for blog posts (which don’t generally change very much after they have been written)… but for something like a course syllabus or wiki feed (I’ll save that discussion for a later day) the content in the repository has to be continually updated. Otherwise we just have old junk entries lying around. FeedWordPress fixes that. FeedWordPress also has a nice “delete all” button that will get rid of feed entries that are marked for deletion. Best of all, the author has provided an excellent API and a bunch of hooks so that I can massage this plugin into doing my complete bidding.

    I will be finalizing and testing these methods tomorrow and over the weekend and will hopefully have some concrete examples by early next week.

    One last thing. These structures do not have to be independent. the communal blog can be combined with the spam blog (giving students the option). A ghost page can then be created in a different tab, feeding in content from other sources as examples and even points of discussion for future posts by the students. A ghost blog can be archived by simply feeding it into a spam blog and so on.

Who owns a class blog post?

So after a lengthy discussion with Vince today I have decided to change my mind on a few of the things that I seemed so certain about just a day ago.

So here is the deal:

I wrote that we would allow professors who so wished to republish all of the student’s blogs into a class blog using wp-o-matic. I’m not sure if we should do that anymore. My reservations come from that fact that if it is republished in the Professor’s blog then I feel that the students loose ownership and that rings strange to my sense of morality.

Let’s consider a few hypothetical situations where a student writes for a class and his blog entries are republished in a class blog :

  • A year down the road the student realized that what he wrote does not represent him and he wants to get rid of it. He can delete the entries in his blog, but they will still be saved in the class blog. He could of course ask the professor to take his posts off, but what if it is 10 years down the line? What if there were a lot of other students who feel the same way?
  • The student decides to delete his blog. If the professor decides to publish the class posts (without attribution), the student has no way of claiming authorship over the post.

There are also hangups for the professor:

  • If the professor accidentally resets wp-o-matic It will recreate all of the entries. WordPress doesn’t have automatic mass deleting of entries (I mean we could write a plugin for it… but plugins take time).
  • If the student updates their blog then those updates are not automatically reflected on the class blog.
  • If a student adds a strange feed (one with say 150 items regarding unsavoury topics) then if those are republished, it is a nightmare to get rid of them. If we just use BDP RSS, all it takes to undo the damage is delete the feed in the BDP RSS options menu

There are probably many more reasons why actually republishing would not be a good idea.

So it comes down to figuring out why we wanted to republish the posts and finding alternatives.

  • Creating a repository: I don’t think at this point we are wanting to create a repository, this isn’t eduglu (as I may have wrongly alluded to in my previous post), it is a blog based course platform where student input is used. A repository of teacher resources should be done in an entirely a slightly different way.
  • Keeping examples of what students did previously: Why not just leave the blog active and create a new blog for every year that links back to previous years. Not only would this give the students an opportunity of pulling out if they don’t want their work published anymore, but it would also allow them to continually update what they have and allows the course to have a history. Using templates and import/export It would be much easier to create a new blog than to get rid of everything from the old blog.

I’m wondering does this make sense? Or are we missing something? We will probably change our minds a hundred times between now and October, but for now I think this model is the most sustainable and easy to implement approach, for us and for the professors.