Ivy League Schools Are Overrated. Send Your Kids Elsewhere. | New Republic

Experience itself has been reduced to instrumental function, via the college essay. From learning to commodify your experiences for the application, the next step has been to seek out experiences in order to have them to commodify. The New York Times reports that there is now a thriving sector devoted to producing essay-ready summers…

The irony is that elite students are told that they can be whatever they want, but most of them end up choosing to be one of a few very similar things. As of 2010, about a third of graduates went into financing or consulting at a number of top schools, including Harvard, Princeton, and Cornell. Whole fields have disappeared from view: the clergy, the military, electoral politics, even academia itself, for the most part, including basic science. It’s considered glamorous to drop out of a selective college if you want to become the next Mark Zuckerberg, but ludicrous to stay in to become a social worker. “What Wall Street figured out,” as Ezra Klein has put it, “is that colleges are producing a large number of very smart, completely confused graduates. Kids who have ample mental horsepower, an incredible work ethic and no idea what to do next.”

The sign of the system’s alleged fairness is the set of policies that travel under the banner of “diversity.” And that diversity does indeed represent nothing less than a social revolution. … But diversity of sex and race has become a cover for increasing economic resegregation. Elite colleges are still living off the moral capital they earned in the 1960s, when they took the genuinely courageous step of dismantling the mechanisms of the WASP aristocracy.

via Ivy League Schools Are Overrated. Send Your Kids Elsewhere. | New Republic.

This article has some really nice insights, though I think it ends on a weak note.

His addresses a humanities-oriented education. I’m not sure what his thoughts are on the sciences and engineering.

2011 Annual Letter from Bill Gates: Excellence in Teaching | Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Our project to learn what the best teachers do—and how to share this information with other teachers—is making significant progress. With the help of local union affiliates, we have learned a lot already. We’re learning that listening to students can be an important element in the feedback system. In classes where students agree that “Our class stays busy and doesn’t waste time” or that “In this class, we learn a lot almost every day,” there tend to be bigger achievement gains.

via 2011 Annual Letter from Bill Gates: Excellence in Teaching | Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Coursera Hits 1 Million Students, With Udacity Close Behind – Wired Campus – The Chronicle of Higher Education

Coursera, an upstart company working with selective universities to offer free online courses, announced this week that it had reached one million registered students. A rival company, Udacity, which also offers what have become known as Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOC’s, says it has more than 739,000 students.

via Coursera Hits 1 Million Students, With Udacity Close Behind – Wired Campus – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Coursera works with some of the world’s best-known universities, such as Princeton University and the University of Virginia, while Udacity works with individual professors rather than institutions.

Udacity’s founder, Sebastian Thrun, said in an e-mail interview that his company planned to remain focused on computer science and related fields. “We are not doing humanities,” he said.

Coders Get Instant Gratification With Khan Academy Programming | Wired Enterprise | Wired.com

The tutorials are interactive and live entirely in the browser. Instead of a video, each lesson contains a pane on the left side for students to enter code and a pane on the right that displays the output. The first lesson walks students through the process of writing code that will draw a face in the right pane. After learning to generate graphics, students work up to animation and eventually to games, such as a Pac-Man clone.

via Coders Get Instant Gratification With Khan Academy Programming | Wired Enterprise | Wired.com.

Khan Academy Computer Science

Interactive tutorials, not videos like previous lessons. Immediate feedback on code chance (without recompiling!).

Teaching recitation: observations

This semester, I am a recitation instructor for 6.004: Computation Structures, a foundation class for EECS majors here at MIT. The class demographic is primarily sophomore and juniors, and enrollment is upwards of 200 students. It is a very well-established class whose curriculum has not changed much in the last 8 years and whose course logistics and organization are mostly smoothed out. It is an ideal environment for inexperienced TAs to focus on teaching, learning, and communicating rather than the frustration of system inefficiencies.

Well, I’m absolutely loving it. Every recitation is solving a small part of the puzzle and a storyboarding adventure. Below are just a few observations I’ve made over the past few weeks.

Students are physically drawn towards handouts. The more colors, the less readily available — the more exotic, basically — the more attractive. One time, I made a multi-colored handwritten handout for a topic that I had trouble explaining in words and distributed them during recitation. Word must have spread somehow, because attendance during one of my sections increased by 50% the next class. That day, the classroom was so full of unfamiliar faces that I thought I was in the wrong place.

Tabula rasa
Undergrads here in EECS are quite passive about their learning in recitation. There is some prevalent inhibition from talking at all, even to voice some basic concerns (e.g. please move, you are blocking the board; please write bigger/darker/clearer). At the very beginning, I am presenting to a blank wall of stares that occasionally look down to jot down notes. Students seem to need to be taught to speak, to smile, to frown, to laugh, to raise their hand and ask questions. They do seem to be born with the ability to walk out and to not show up again, but they are otherwise blank slates. It’s up to me to keep them or lose them.

But the real side effect of this phenomenon on me is that I am pleasantly surprised (shocked, rather) everytime students say “have a good weekend” back at me and everytime I don’t hear a lot of shuffling of papers and backpack zippers at 1:56pm.

Pre-spring break attendance
Yay, spring break! Everyone I know (myself included) skipped class today (er, yesterday) in lieu of fancy spring break plans or laundry or just more quality time with the internet. Beyond all odds and to my utmost pleasant surprise, however, attendance in my sections did not deviate much at all. I estimate regular section attendance at 15-20; attendance today was 13-15. We started placing bets before section to guess how many students would show up. My original guess was 5, and I was willing to (but did not) put money on the number being less than 10. Turns out, my students are much more optimistic (and correct) about attendance than me.

The desire to skip class on the last day before a long vacation is a strong force, so I need to think a bit more about the circumstances around my recitations that countered this force (such that I can replicate this effect!). Another instructor, who observed my section, once described my recitation as “very relaxing,” so maybe coming to class was close enough to the feeling of spring break!

The trouble with asking for feedback
Turns out, it is hard to cater to 20 different students all at once. When I asked for feedback on the amount of lecture review versus problem solving preferred, I got back a uniform distribution of the entire spectrum of choices. They did all agree, however, that I ought to make fewer mistakes, So there is at least that bit of feedback on which I can act.

Areas of improvement
Names: I’ve never been good with names, but that is no excuse to not even try. I still don’t know names, for the most part. Knowing names is a key part of engagement in teaching.

Blackboard organization: It occurs to me that my blackboard organization is sloppy, or at least, non-ideal for notetakers. The tradeoff that I am concerned about is that more time spent writing things on the board means less time to explain and interact with students.

The Torch or the Firehose
One last note. Professor Mattuck put together a guide on teaching recitation at MIT, and it’s absolutely fantastic. It’s a great read and points out common pitfalls. It also inspires better teaching. MIT could really benefit from closer attention to excellent teaching.