Personality, personalization, and teaching in higher ed.

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!

4 thoughts on “Personality, personalization, and teaching in higher ed.”

  1. Frank Gulla says:

    I am not sure about the instructor putting his/her “personality” into the course, but I always wanted to know that the instructor was passionate about the subject. When I look back, the courses I enjoyed the most were those courses taught with passion. Now I teach, and the best evaluations come from the classes I teach with passion. So if my ‘passion’ equals your ‘personality’ then I guess we are on the same wave length. Of course, it is hard in any technical subject (statics, material balance, thermo) for the whole course to filled with passion lectures. But if half the classes/lectures display the instructor real interest in the subject, it can overcome many “off-putting” characteristics of a lecturer.

    My current example of passion in instruction is Dianna Cowen, “Physics Girl” an MIT grad living in San Diego. Her enthusiasm is infectious. Check out this video of her investigation of water whirlpools.

  2. Matt Poole says:

    One of the faculty expectations we implemented in our online classes is having weekly video announcements in which the instructor looks and speaks directly into the camera. This is typically done each Monday and posted into the Announcements section via Youtube.

    Although there was initially a certain amount of resistance from faculty to the idea of making “talking head videos,” the response from students has been so overwhelmingly positive that many faculty members have been forced to revise their opinions (myself included). Students really seem to like seeing their instructor’s faces –even the not-so-good-looking ones!

    Once the instructor is able to relax and warm up to the medium, their enthusiasm for the subject can be truly communicated through tone of voice, expression and body language –those same communication channels that conventional wisdom would have us believe have to be lost in online education!

  3. Jon Becker says:

    Interesting, @Matt. What are you using for that? Do instructors do it DIY style with a webcam? Or, is this done in a production studio?

  4. Kate Bowles says:

    I’m also keen to know the answer to this question. I’ve watched both the videos you linked to in the post, and I can see the production values that make them both useful. But watching the first one I’m also thinking about what happens when a different instructor teaches the course that an individual has pre-personalised.

    This is a question I have about MOOCs too.

    When I was an undergraduate, I was taught by a film historian who’d decided that the way to avoid repeating standard information about shot dimensions etc in lectures was to make short videos. Our cohort came along maybe four years after he’d made them originally. The content was the same, but it was distractingly entertaining to us that he had looked so different back then. And yet to remake them, either with uptodate facial hair or (let’s not forget this dimension) up to date content would cancel out the cost effectiveness of making them in the first place.

    We’re in Picture of Dorian Gray territory with course intro videos, and I think the DIY solutions will be the ones that work best, and also seem freshest to students.

    Lovely blog, Jon. Now we’re both thinking about video hospitality. Thanks.

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