In a return to the good ol’ days of educational blogging, Martin Weller wrote a blog post that has generated 49 comments as of this writing (which comes about 72 hours after he posted). I can’t remember the last educational blog post that generated as many comments so quickly. And, to add icing to the cake, the post caused the great Kate Bowles to write her own post in response. Hooray for the edublogosphere!

The conversation in those posts focus on the role of instructor personality in higher ed courses. Weller ultimately wonders about it all:

Whenever I do my social media for academics sessions, I always stress that it’s called social media for a reason, so put a bit of yourself in there. What I’m genuinely unsure about is the extent to which we should deliberately seek to place the learning process. If we remove it, learning can become dull and dry and possibly out of sync with the social media world it needs to operate within. But if we place too much emphasis on it, we risk highlighting the extrovert academic, the jokester, the good looking one, above academics with better subject skills.

Bowles explores the question: what does gender have to do with personality in MOOCs in particular? Her exploration raises important issues worth considering. For me, though, the key paragraph in her post is this one:

In a sector shaped by the persistent anticipation of audit, personality is a bit of a handful. The hallmarks of personable teaching—improvisation, creativity,  anecdote, all the idiosyncratic connections that an individual gets to make between one thing and another—are flatly at odds with the ideals of standardisation and repeatability that assure the student experience.

I’m not so sure that it’s personality that’s at odds with standardization as much as it is the related idea personalization.

There’s this persistent belief in higher education that if we somehow standardize the curriculum. we will “assure the student experience” (to use Bowles’ language). That is, if we don’t have the same syllabus and materials used for every section of a given course, we won’t get consistently good results. Furthermore, no one student should have a “better” experience than any other, so a standardized approach will ensure that this doesn’t happen. I can’t tell you how hard I argued with my colleagues for the “right” to use (or not use) the same textbook as others teaching sections of School Law. My colleagues genuinely believed that every student in our department taking the same course had to use the same textbook, regardless of who was teaching the course.

Hogwash, I say! Actually, I feel more strongly than that. It’s bullshit!  Why? Exactly because of personality. And teacher quality. Those two things, which aren’t entirely unrelated, vary greatly across teachers/professors/instructors. There’s no two ways about it.  And, rather than try to minimize that variance, I think we have to see the variance as a feature and not a bug. That is, we should let teachers/professors/instructors personalize the learning experience in ways that best take advantage of the unique skills, talents, and, yes, personality of  the teacher/professor/instructor.

At VCU and VCUALTLab, we are facing a related challenge. We are working with faculty members and departments to create course trailers. Originally, we were doing this only for online courses, but we’re now moving into the realm of general education. Additionally, our academic bulletin is transitioning to a new platform called CourseLeaf. I’m excited by what I’ve seen from CourseLeaf; well, as excited as one can get about a course bulletin management system. One exciting feature of CourseLeaf is that we can integrate course trailers into the platform. So, when students are browsing the bulletin, or when they’re directed to a description of a course in the bulletin, they can not only read a short description of the course, but they can also watch a course trailer. So far, so good.

The problem/challenge we face is that course bulletins only go course-deep, not section-deep. In other words, there’s a generic description of, say, Introduction to Africana Studies (AFAM111 at VCU). There’s nothing in the bulletin about individual instructors or individual sections. So, a little while back, Molly Ransone and her team worked with Chioke l’Anson, a faculty member in the Department of African-American Studies, to create a course trailer for an online section of AFAM111 Chioke was teaching during a January intersession. It was an online course being offered during an unusual term. The course trailer would be used both to recruit students to the course and also as an introduction for the students in a way that creates genuine instructor presence, a key factor for successful online courses.

Now, if we put that video in the bulletin as a course trailer for AFAM111 generally, it creates a couple of problems. First, that particular course trailer perfectly reflects Chioke’s personality. A prospective student might see the video and expect, if not Chioke himself, another professor with a similar personality. Second, Chioke’s framing of the course is tailored, personalized to his personality and his particular expertise. Not every faculty member will explore Africana Studies by examining the cultural phenomenon that is Flava Flav.

One solution to this problem is to create generic course trailers for general education courses. One example of that is the course trailer for Focused Inquiry (UNIV 111 and 112), a two-semester sequence that all first-year students take. The video is fantastic, but it gives students no expectations of their particular instructor or section. This isn’t the best example because students are placed into sections of these courses and don’t have a choice about whether to take it or not.

But, for courses in Tier II of our core curriculum (UNIV 111 and 112 are part of Tier I), where students have a choice of which courses to take, course trailers can play a more important role. One role it might play is to get students excited about taking a particular course. So, if, for example, the Sociology program wants students to take Sociology 101 so that they might interest students in becoming sociology majors, a course trailer could really help. But,a generic course trailer makes that harder. More importantly, though, for the student considering taking Sociology 101, knowing which section to take would really help the student. That would be aided by section-specific course trailers that reflected the unique personalities, expertise and style of the instructor. One prospective student might be attracted to a section taught by a professor who has a wry sense of humor and seeks to examine sociological issues through real-world examples and lots of small-group activities. Another prospective student might be attracted to a section taught by a professor who is serious and who wants students to do lots of individual writing.

Of course, none of that matters if we don’t allow instructors to personalize all aspects of their courses. And, to allow instructors to personalize their courses would be to accept that courses, or sections of courses, necessarily reflect the personality (and expertise, style, etc.) of the professor. So, whereas Martin Weller has concerns about DS 106 taking on the personality of Jim Groom, I say huzzah. Let personalities shine!