Grazing - a personal blog from Steve Ehrmann

Steve Ehrmann is an author, speaker, and consultant.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Chance Favors the Connected Mind (at a price)

I just watched this video, "Chance Favors the Connected Mind," from Steven Johnson, the author of Where Good Ideas Come From.  (Thanks to Joshua Kim for pointing this out.) I look forward to reading the book.

One thing Johnson mentions in the video already rings true for me: using the Web can damage or diminish some traditional ways of thinking (through distraction, shorter attention span, and floundering) while simultaneously opening up and enriching other modes of thinking (associative thinking, creativity, connecting with others).  Those are two empirical hypotheses, and both are subject to investigation.

This is something we've seen again and again.  In 1999, I wrote about the gains and losses that came from the adoption of reading and writing long ago, and similar gains and losses stemming from the creation of universities hundreds of years ago.  And those tradeoffs resemble the one to which Johnson alludes: more access to ideas and people, which can then lazily mix, while this empowerment simultaneously increase the risks of distraction and floundering.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Criteria for great assessment tools

I'm preparing to do some work as external evaluator on an NSF grant to Prof. Ashley Ater Kranov at Washington State University. The grant is to test their tools for teaching and assessing engineering professional skills.

As I thought about how to evaluate this project, it occurred to me that the Force Concept Inventory in physics is the most powerfully constructive assessment measure I've seen.  I listed the following five criteria to describe what's so great about the FCI:

  1. Face validity: Appears valid and interesting to faculty who don’t see themselves as ‘educationists’  
  2. Counter-intuitive results occur frequently: Often surprises first-time users with the results (bad or good), convincing them that it was worth the course time needed to use the materials and the rubric, and their own time to analyze the results and consider what to do.
  3. Sensitivity: Can detect outcome differences among different teaching methods
  4. Robustness: When used two or more times with the same cohort of students, sensitive enough to detect progress in teaching/learning strategies, even when the instructor is trying a good strategy for the first time and in a half-assed way. Several years ago I talked with a physics asst. prof. who was hooked on the FCI, and on applying PER to his teaching, for precisely this reason.  He thought of himself as an excellent lecturer. But when he did a poor job of trying some PER-based techniques, his FCI scores went up. When he tried those techniques again, better, the FCI scores went up more.
  5. Generativity: The measure and its findings often stimulate its users to consider new pedagogical approaches.
I just made up this list. It's likely someone else has already written a similar, better list of features of powerful assessment measures. Seen one?

Saturday, October 9, 2010


"Grazing" is a pun - grazing in the sense of slow feeding and chewing, and grazing in the sense of (at best) almost hitting the mark.  I'll do my best to be on target, but I'm old enough to know better.

This post is the first in "Grazing." But it continues a series of observations that appeared in TLT-SWG, a blog I co-authored with my long-time friend and colleague, Steve Gilbert, when we worked together at the Teaching, Learning, and Technology Group.  (Steve is the "SWG")

About a year ago, I wrote a series of posts on TLT-SWG called "Ten Things I (no longer) Believe about Transforming Teaching and Learning with Technology."  The observations appeared in pairs. The first observation in each pair describing something I'd once believed (and that many people still do) about the potentially revolutionary impact of technology on teaching and learning, especially in higher education. For example, that technology could drive change.  The second post of each pair summarized what I now believe instead.

After hearing what folks had to say about those thoughts, I chewed my cud a bit more and wrote an article, "Taking the Long View: Ten Recommendations about Time, Money, Technology and Learning," which was published in September 2010 in Change Magazine.  (Click here to download a PDF of the galley proof of the article.)   The topic: in the real world of today's institutions, how to gradually make widely visible improvements in the learning outcomes of academic programs, using digital technology, some unusual ideas about faculty support, assessment, and other sources of leverage.

Each of the ten recommendations reinforces the other nine: doing just one is less likely to succeed than if several are implemented together.  I realized that I could never put these ideas to the test if I continued to live the itinerant life of a consultant, a "Lone Ranger" who would drop for a day or two at an institution, and leave (often forever).  Instead, to test and upgrade these ideas, I needed to invest years with one place, to become part of a coalition with like-minded colleagues, alter my thinking as it became our thinking.  My goal as I begin: find and help some highly-motivated departments to improve the capabilities of their graduates in ways that the world will notice, appreciate, and reward. (One of the keys to this approach is the intent to increase the tangible rewards for the improvement of teaching, or at least for some kinds of improvement of teaching.)

Drexel University offered me a position. Or, actually, two positions.  I'm now an associate clinical professor of learning technologies (and eager for doctoral students who might come to Drexel to help us research some of these propositions.)  I'm also senior coordinator of special projects in the office of the provost. Both positions offer me opportunities to join with colleagues, think together, and act together.

In this blog, I'll make some personal observations about what's going on at Drexel and in the rest of the world. And, because "Grazing" is a blog and many readers are also my friends, I'll report about my own life from time to time.  Today that means a report on the doings of our son, Chris.

Chris lives in New York.  By day, he runs a photo agency, Goldteeth and Co  (his professional moniker is Chris Goldteeth.) By night, Chris and his partner lead "Karaoke Killed the Cat," a karaoke party that pops up 2-3 nights a week in venues around the city and periodically in other cities around the world, Los Angeles, Reykjavik, ...  

Last night, Masaharu Morimoto, the famous Iron Chef on the Food Network, invited Chris to lead karaoke at a party Morimoto was hosting at the Harvard Club, as part of New York's Food and Wine Week.  And the two of them sang together.  If you don't know who Morimoto is, this may not stew your prunes.  But Leslie and I love watching Morimoto on the Food Network.  We've eaten with Chris and Monique at his restaurant in Manhattan. So we were happy for Chris last night, and I wanted to share some of that happiness with you.  These are the good old days!