Christopher X J. Jensen
Associate Professor, Pratt Institute

Open Information Environments and the 21st Century College Classroom

Posted 10 Jun 2014 / 2

Transparency-02-0400pxWhen I was in graduate school working towards my doctorate, we were required to take “comprehensive exams” to stay in the program and qualify for candidacy. This made a lot of sense: I was lucky to be in a program whose required courses created a very strong background in my disciplines, and the comprehensive exams served as a means of assuring that all students had gained the foundational knowledge and understanding required to pursue a dissertation and eventually become a professional ecologist or evolutionary biologist. So although I did not love being subjected to the comprehensive exam when I was a student, I saw its rationale for being. That is, except for one small and annoying part of the exam… a section that everyone in the department referred to as “trivial pursuits”.

The fact that over the years these short-definition questions had come to known by the shorthand name “trivial pursuits” kind of says it all. While most of the exam was based on completing long essay questions that explored larger issues and concepts in ecology and evolution, the trivial pursuits part of the exam was based on… well, trivia. To prepare for this part of the exam my cohort circulated lists of hundreds of vocabulary words, committing a lot of obscure technical definitions to memory in the hope that our list would contain the ten or so words on which we would be tested. I don’t remember that these short-definition questions comprised a large part of our final comp exam score, but they did take up a lot of our studying time. And do I remember any of those words? Perhaps, but not because I was forced to keep them in my head for a few days so that I could perform on a test.

For most current and former students, this kind of testing sounds pretty familiar. Unless you have experienced nothing but alternative education, you probably have been asked to memorize things in preparation for exams. I still remember struggling with particular multiples in my times tables, forgetting May when asked to recite the months of the year, and spending hours memorizing and promptly forgetting important historical dates. I was always thankful for the parts of tests that did not simply require rote memorization, because studying for these sorts of questions held meaning. Poring over my notes before an exam, it always made sense to that I would be challenged to demonstrate how well I had synthesized the ideas presented in readings and discussed in class. This kind of conceptual understanding — explaining why things exist, showing inter-relationships between things, and describing how things work — imbued me with the ability to understand new ideas and concepts when I encountered them. Whether I remembered the details of a particular phenomenon — for example, relevant technical terms — had no effect on what I had really learned: how to think about a problem.

I have heard and understand the rationale for remembering things: to be an educated person, one needs to know facts. To participate in a lot of intellectual conversations, you need to recognize the terms, phenomena, and locations that other people are referring to. These things are true, but only to a limited extent. It would be unfortunate if I — as a practicing ecologist — did not know what the word “phenology” meant. But for the average person, knowledge of the word is not really all that important, especially because most people know and understand that organisms display seasonally-timed changes in behavior and morphology. But my need to know this word stems from needing to use it, so there was never a time that memorizing the word was necessary: I learned it because I ended up needing to use it frequently. In fact, for this word in particular, I can remember the very moment at which I learned what it meant. I had encountered it in a scientific article and turned to one of my fellow graduate students to ask him “hey Adam, do you know what ‘phenology’ means?”. He had a vague sense of the word but to be sure we had it right we spent several seconds conducting a web search before finding its meaning. That I still know this term reflects the fact that phenology has become part of my conceptual understanding of how ecosystems work, not that I chose to stop and memorize this word when I first encountered its definition.

So why do we give tests that require students to memorize facts? What I do not buy is that testing for the ability to memorize facts for an exam does anything to make our students more knowledgable. Gaining knowledge requires more than just being acquainted with certain facts; good teaching helps students decide what to do with those facts, to be capable of the interpretation and explanation that is the hallmark of real knowledge. If our goal is to make students knowledgable, our tests ought to assess student ability to contend with information, not just regurgitate it. As such, I have come to consider tests that ask students to demonstrate that they have memorized something to be a sign of inadequate teaching. The crime of commission (wasting student time by asking them to memorize lots of material for an exam) is nowhere as harmful as the crime of omission (losing the chance to challenge students to demonstrate deep understanding of conceptual material). There is a tremendous opportunity cost associated with giving an exam that contains any requirement to memorize material: for every question that only requires rote memorization, the opportunity is lost to assess student understanding.

Asking students to memorize things can be a false proxy for real teaching. What was going on in the classroom if all that students are asked to demonstrate is that they can recite factual information? Was the class just about facts? If so, why do we even need the classroom anymore? At one point professors might have been needed as the source of rarefied information, but now anyone can look up almost anything on the internet. Does that mean that teachers are obsolete? There has been a lot of talk of late about the internet making conventional education irrelevant. I think this is wrong, because the internet is frequently a very bad place to gain conceptual understanding. But if “education” is defined by the ability to memorize facts curated by some sort of expert, the internet surely will kill education.

A lot of professors ban the use of laptops, tablets, and phones in their classrooms, especially classes of small to moderate size. This has always seemed a bit absurd to me, especially as a person who absolutely relies on my digital notes to keep my life together. The stated rationale is avoiding distraction: if you don’t allow any use of these devices in the classroom, then at very least your students will not be distracted by texting friends, checking their Facebook account, or shopping online. But I wonder what is lost when you separate students from their tie to the digital world. If I use a word that one of my students does not understand, why not allow the possibility of quickly Googling “define: obscure word just used by my professor”? If any word is going to stick with a student, it will be the one that they decided was important enough to look up. When I was a student you would have to take a note and then remember to look up the word in a dictionary or encyclopedia hours later; why begrudge my students the fact that they can accomplish the same in a matter of seconds? If you do decide to ban networked devices from your classroom, you should at least understand what your classroom is losing.

I have decided that I am done once and for all with asking my students to memorize anything. In the age of the internet, memorization seems so Twentieth Century. With such large numbers of people carrying around an internet-connected smartphone in their pockets these days — including people in developing countries that have traditionally lacked access to information — there is no meaningful rationale for teaching our students how to memorize facts. Want to know something factual? Look it up on your phone, tablet, or computer. What the modern classroom should be providing is not information itself but the ability to assess the validity, interpret the meaning, and understand the context of information. We all have access to plenty of information. What to do with it?

Once I decided that memorization was no longer going to be part of my classes, walls came cascading down. Why shouldn’t students have access to the course reading material on quizzes and exams? Why shouldn’t students have access to the internet during these assessments? Once you decide that information alone is not the focus of your course, it becomes very easy to allow students full access to whatever information they find valuable.

I call this new classroom configuration the Open Information Environment. Here’s how I define it on my syllabus:

You will never be required to memorize anything in this class: we maintain an “open information environment”, so you may use your notes, books/articles, the internet, and other media to complete homework, in-class assignments, and quizzes.

HOWEVER: Unless specifically stated otherwise, all work in this class is to be completed on your own. You may not and should not obtain help from any other person to complete any of your work: this includes all homework, all quizzes, and individual assignments. You should also not share any of your individual work with other students. “Studying together”, discussing material outside of class, and any other processing of the course materials prior to completing coursework is allowed and encouraged, but you need to do your own work. Students are asked to sign an oath to uphold and honor this code at the beginning of the semester, and are expected to take this commitment seriously even when violating the code would likely escape detection. Any violations of this policy will be considered cheating and reported as appropriate.

Can students use their laptops in my classroom? Yes. Can students use their tablets in my classroom? Yes. Can students use their smartphones in my classroom? Yes. What can’t students do with these devices? Use them to communicate with each other when they are supposed to be doing their own work.

I turned most of my courses into Open Information Environments over the past academic year (2013-2014). Although many of the changes in my classroom that result from “setting information free” improve the way that students interact with my course, perhaps the biggest improvement spurred by this change in policy has come in my own teaching. As a result of this policy, it no longer makes sense for me to ask any question of my students that is not conceptual in nature. I would say that my courses already emphasized conceptual learning pretty strongly, but instituting this policy has illuminated plenty of places where I was basically just teaching information. Now as I sit down to write quiz or exam questions, I have to ask myself “what idea would the student have to understand in order to correctly answer this question?”. That question has forced me to think about the nature of my lessons, assessing where I do and do not appropriately emphasize understanding of ideas and concepts. The Open Information Policy has forced me to be a better teacher, because it has removed an easy crutch on which I used to periodically lean: “teaching” as delivery of information.

There have been a few hiccups associated with the introduction of this policy. An Open Information Environment classroom is radically different from what most of us are used to, and that can cause confusion for both student and teacher. Perhaps the worst problem has been plagiarism: on a few assignments and exams, students have presented — without attribution — material from the readings or from the web. These cases were few in number and occurred among a small subset of my students, a subset that seemed to lack understanding of plagiarism. I suspect these same students would have been equally likely to plagiarize on a term paper — an assignment medium that has traditionally allowed open information access (so long as that information is properly attributed) — as they were on my newly-open assignments and exams. In this case the problem was not really that students had access to information, but that they did not know how to properly use it. In the digital age, there is increased need to make students aware of intellectual property rights, fair use, and avoiding plagiarism.

Allowing students to use their laptops throughout the class has caused me to have one confrontation with Facebook, but it was a memorable confrontation for all students in the class and I did not seem to have this problem for the rest of the semester. There probably is a lot more texting going on because it is admittedly a bit difficult to tell “note-taking” on one’s phone from “updating one’s friend on how horrible this class is”. But there have also been pleasant surprises. During one class one of my students — who had seemed less respectful of classroom rules and mores up to that point — was furiously typing away on his phone. It wasn’t so distracting that I felt the need to intervene as I had in the “Facebook incident”, so I just let it go, assuming that the student would suffer when I asked exam questions on the material at question. The next week that student came up to me, phone in hand, and started asking me questions about the previous week’s material. He hadn’t been texting, he had been taking copious notes on a part of my lesson that he found particularly thought-provoking. We do not know what are students are doing on their devices today, and a lot of what they are doing could be quite valuable. I would rather assume the best and maintain the value of these devices to my students than ban their use altogether just so I could be assured that their worst uses were not happening in my classroom. If my exam is not sufficiently rigorous to penalize the student who was distracted in class, I need to write more challenging exams rather than try to police students who are distracted. Proper assessment should reveal which students were insufficiently attentive in class.

All authors should admit to their biases, so here is mine: my fact-recall memory is very poor. I forget really obvious things all the time. I can remember things if I have to, but only with really careful effort (for example, I have a method by which I usually know the name of every student in each of my classes by the end of the first session, but I put a lot of work into accomplishing this important feat of memorization). Memorizing facts has always been hard work for me. My smart phone has freed me from much of that hard work. So perhaps my advocacy for Open Information Environments in the classroom is influenced by my own inadequacies. But the way that I like to think of it is this: I am made for this time. For much of human history, my poor recall-memory would have been I liability. But I am lucky to have been born into a time when having information in your head is far less important than knowing what to do with information you obtain from your environment. My teaching philosophy — including how I allow my students to access information — reflects my understanding of what “teaching” ought to mean in a world where every one of us is walking around with a world of information in our pockets. What to do with it?

A Major Post, Assessment Methods, Conceptual Teaching Assessment Project, Higher Education, Teaching

2 Comments to "Open Information Environments and the 21st Century College Classroom"

Barbara Charton 12th June 2014 at 5:12 pm

While I appreciate your thoughts about students’ thoughts, I do not believe that they are truly adept at doing two things at once. I am not sure that anyone can really do that and pay critical attention to both and this is from someone who watches films or talks while knitting complex patterns that take attention. Do they take notes? do they ask questions or answer them? I am looking for evidence of engagement with class material. If they are engaged with a gizmo, they are not engaged in the work (yes it is work) of the class. Anyone who really teaches is not fixated on facts. Anyone can look that up anytime. The work of a class is integration of facts into a model. Isn’t that what science is about: the making of models. Do I think Pratt students are adult enough and sufficiently sophisticated to realize that a science course is pertinent to them? For the most part the answer to that is no. They may be glib, they may be quite sophisticated with their electronic ‘brains’ but they cannot contain or articulate a logical argument for more than two steps. They cannot handle distraction well because they cannot prioritize. I think the more input they have to deal with the less capable they are of real thought. No, I disagree with you in regard to use of electronic equipment in the class. I have seen far to many students noodling around on email or games or shopping while in class. It becomes a way to become disengaged with the real business of the class.

[…] place in the Faculty Technology Studios, I spoke about how I have instituted what I call the “Open Information Environment” in all of my courses. Check out my longer post on this if you want to know the whole story, […]

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