Teaching style

If you are a teacher, or student you might want to access the courses, which contain resources for teaching and learning.

Teaching consists of at least the following components: Syllabus, lab and practical work, lecture, home work, exams, and last, but not least, mentoring.

Syllabus and readings

Usually, the first thing to be considered in the design of a course is the text-book. Fortunately (or unfortunately) the area of informatics has been changing fast for as long as I have been a student and researcher (15+ years). By the time any decent text book is published some part of it is outdated, or at least not as important as some other parts of it. In the case of translations, the problem is even greater. National publishers are (naturally) picky about the books they translate, so by the time the local (e.g., Greek) version hits the shelves, a significant part of it has expired. Of course, there are some ideas (e.g. algorithms) or some practices (e.g., the text editor) that stay the same despite the number of changes, but those are usually lost in the details of long (out-dated) text-books. The above issues are just the tip of the iceberg. I have noticed that the teaching system (syllabus-teachers-notes-students) usually becomes trapped in a text-book and the respective syllabus: there is an inertia to the changes that happen to both practice and research. The suggested remedy: 1) pick a couple of great English text-books that are updated often by the authors, 2) ignore (the nice) slides offered by the authors and prepare a short comprehensive set of slides that is easy to update and change often, 3) set-up a collaborative wiki that students update with relevant content. In summary, text-books are really great (for your library shelves).

The lecture

Lecturing has been for many years one of the main components of teaching at any level of education, but the growth of online lectures has been shifting the value of teaching from the local lecture to added value activities. Please do not get me wrong, I love teaching and talks, as well as getting feedback and evaluation by the audience. On the other hand, I have found numerous online talks (on the same topics I teach) to be so much better than my own performance. Could this be a threat to our local lecturing activities? To the extend that a live lecture is just the same performance over and over again, then any live lecture might be replaced by instructional media such as video by a top lecturer who provides rehearsed acting, which has also the benefit of being able to pause, replay, and skip. Will the live lecture become obsolete as soon as there is a broad and deep video library of quality lectures available online? I think, yes, and yes, but I consider this to be an opportunity for shifting our attention towards the other components of teaching and in particular mentoring, which is personalized to each student. At the same time, the lecturer is empowered to create and develop lectures on topics of expertise, which might not have been relevant at a local level. Overall, the demise of the local lecture is a great opportunity for improving the effectiveness of teaching, as well as for the personal development of each lecturer/researcher.

Group work, mentoring, and live journal

In addition to highly topical lectures that are delivered by an expert on the topic, the local and campus activities should focus on adding unique value to the learning experience. There are many creative approaches to additing value to learning experiences that are not threatened by instructional media, such as personal mentoring, group-work, and synchronous tele-teaching. In particular, personal mentoring in the context of group-work enables individuals to relate with the effort required to transform themselves from the current situation to a new level. Even shy students who might not ask for personal advice are inderectly benefited by the questions of more extrovert students. Moreover, personal mentoring and group-work might be further enhanced by an occasional synchronous tele-teaching session. In this way, the local activities are transformed into a flexible learning format that reflects the group dynamics, which are not possible to mimic with instructional media. Moreover, local and distant group-work is a pilar in many kinds of contemporary work activies, so the students are indirectly also getting exposure to the modern work place. Finally, in contrast to performing according to schedule, I am recording the above activities in a journal, which is shared with students. This journal has been useful for further reflection, and it is also beneficial for those who missed the class.

Teacher and instructional media

Every time there is a new technology or medium that records and transmits knowledge there is an hypothesis that it is going to replace teaching. The first one to accurately invalidate the hypothesis was Socrates, who was against books as a replacement of teachers because one cannot discuss with a book and discussion (interactivity) between face-to-face humans is where learning takes place. The exact same hypothesis has been raised again several times during the introduction and diffusion of instructional media such as printing, distance learning through post, online syllabus, e-books, forums, video lectures, etc. After thousands of years of facing the same hypothesis again and again we should have known better. In short, instructional media cannot replace (and cannot be compared) to teaching as long as they are not really personalized to and interactive with each learner. Of course, modern instructional media, such as video with text-based forums or video-games provide increased interactivity between teacher and learner. In addition, we can have teachers and learners interact through video conference in real-time. So, it seems that we are getting there, slowly but steadily adding interactivity between humans during online learning. Then, the question is: Are we going to be able to totally replace human contact with mediated one during online learning? Yes, as much as we have been able to replace it for other human relationships, such as love and friendship. ;-)

Home work and instructional media

Since you can find quality and quantity of instructional media in open courseware platforms (syllabus, notes, slides, videos, text-books), home-work should be geared towards those resources. This idea has been named the flipped classroom, because it keeps the same structure (teaching plus assignments), but flips the place: teaching happens at home and assignments happen at school. In the beginning a student should be mentored towards the right instructional media according to preferences and level. In this way, we can imagine the teacher as a doctor, who has a very personal contact with each student and provides a prescription of instructional media according to needs, history, and objectives. In the end, the ultimate goal of the home-work schedule should be the empowerment of the student to retrieve those resources by personal means. Indeed, learning to learn seems to be the holly grail for any learning activity. Although all learning objectives are about a particular subject matter, there is always this higher-level objective, regardless of subject matter. At the highest level of learning to learn one is expected to be able to keep an intrinsically motivated dialog between oneself and the instructional medium, and this is the rare occasion when teaching theories and teaching styles like this page become useless.

The lab and practical work

As soon as the majority of instructional media (text-books, slides, video lectures, video-games, simulations) is employed in home-work, then what is left for the classroom? It has been said that the contemporary classroom (teacher at the top and students in rows) stands for the hierarchical structure and the needs of industrial and post-industrial economic activities. Since we have been going through an economic transformation with much of motor and cognitive work being replaced by robots and computers, then the real question is what is the nature of contemporary and future office work (if we assume that such a thing is going to exist)? My current understanding is that the classroom should become mostly a collaboration space with activities that require group-work. Local live lectures should remain part of the mix, but should be turn-based between the instructor and the participating students, who are going to present and get critique of their homework. Moreover, the idea of lab and practical work should grow to include out of classroom activities, as much as possible: for example, students visiting museums and doing activities there, higher education students doing video conference with remote groups of students, working on few projects during a long time under the mentoring of multiple instructor and outside stakeholders.

The exam

Last, but not least, the exam is considered to be the holy grail for the students, because of the significant implications (fail, pass, honours, etc). During the 90’s, as a student, I have never liked exams, and the transition to research and teaching offered an initial (but short lived) relief. As a teacher I have discovered that the stress of giving exams has only given its place to the stress of grading exams with a single definite mark, which carries the aforementioned important implications. How could the exam change to encourage constructive use of week-long preparation and 2-3h intense writing? For the time being, in small-scale (10-20 students) research-based courses, I have successfully introduced peer-reviewing and grading. In particular, each student has to evaluate the term paper-presentation-process for each one of the rest of the students and provide a grade. If the grade is within a narrow range of my grade for that term-paper then that student gets high mark, otherwise looses some points. The benefit of this approach is twofold: 1) the students are forced to engage with the peers’ work as much as their own work, and 2) they become more responsible about their own work, because they understand better the criteria for grading it.

Pedagogy

There are probably as many pedagogic approaches as there are religions and existential philosophies. Then, it becomes apparent that the selection of any particular pedagogy cannot be totally objective and it depends on several factors and on their inter-dependencies. For example, applied arts schools (e.g., industrial design, architecture) are based on the studio approach, which is a collaborative lab mixed with mentoring and critiques. Nevertheless, first year students will also get a lot of lecturing, but lecturing will diminish as the students progress towards the final years in favor of studio work. Another interesting pedagogic approach is the one of music schools, which have one-to-one instruction, which is based mostly on performing on a musical instrument. The approaches followed by applied visual and audio schools has been test by time, as it remains the same over thousands of years. Notably, computer science is very similar to applied arts: There is an instrument (computer) with many manifestations (mobile, embedded, desktop, server, etc) and the instrument can be applied to solve problems in many other domains. Then, a pedagogic approach to teaching computing might have a lot to learn by the studio and one-to-one approach followed by applied arts schools.

Mentoring style

Mentoring versus lecturing

Although I do enjoy giving (or attending) a good lecture, mentoring (closely followed by lab work) is the most effective way of teaching and learning. Actually, I think that, if it was possible, mentoring should become the only way of teaching others. Unfortunately, teaching is usually associated with fixed lectures, which transfer knowledge from research findings to students in a rather inflexible way, as if knowledge is fixed and most unfortunately as if all students attending the lecture have the same level or the same preferences. As a matter of fact, mentoring is attacking both problems (knowledge growth and variability of student knowledge) and is also the most rewarding activity for the researcher/mentor, because one can immediately get feedback on student improvement; now compare that to lecture-based teaching, which is only evaluated at the end of the semester with an almost binary pass/fail exam. Of course, mentoring is also very challenging and it is not practical for larger groups of students. In my view, the rewards for me and my students far exceed the challenges. In practice, the main reward during mentoring has been the construction of software and publication of articles all of which have strengthened the self-confidence of students and fueled their follow-up steps in industry or research. Nevertheless, I can see some value in lecturing in the format of a shared experience that bonds together a big group of people, just like TV or cinema does. For example, students gather in an auditorium to attend a professionally recorded lecture on video and then they have a discussion with a panel of experts. Or, students watch a video lecture at home and then they meet at the lab, in order to work in groups.

Some notable challenges in the preparation of a thesis (or moving from school to industry)

I have been supervising a few dozens theses at all levels (BSc, MSc, PhD) and at different countries and universities. Although the requirements seem different, I have identified some challenges that are common in the process of preparing a thesis that makes some sense in the face of the modern world: 1) Open-ended, 2) Confusing, and 3) Demotivating. Overcoming these challenges is not easy and in many cases does not happen at all or happens partially. Open-ended: The majority of the students arrive at the start of the thesis with an experience of more than fifteen years of course-work that has been offered to them mostly as well-defined problems and solutions. When I tell them that the syllabus for the thesis will be the thesis report itself when submitted at the end of the process, most of the students experience a cultural shock at the level of the “chicken and egg problem”. Confusing: Depending on the personality (extrovert-introvert) of the student and the amount of readings (e.g., books, articles, software) after approximately one or more months the student will report that the topic is confusing and unclear. That’s an excellent signal that the student has done a significant amount of breadth exploration on a topic and it is time to narrow down into a more focused topic. Demotivating: Narrowing down the topic into something concrete is usually a wish that the student soon regrets, because after a few more months of work on a narrowly defined topic the student becomes bored and demotivated. That’s again an excellent signal that the student has been doing a significant amount of in-depth work and it is time to wrap-up things into the thesis report. Sometimes, I think that the main value of doing a thesis is about facing these challenges for the first time in a controlled environment like a university. Recognizing and acknowledging these challenges provides some hope that they might become manageable by the end of the thesis or at least that the student will be prepared for the real world and the contemporary industry, which is very much like that: 1) Open ended, 2) Confusing, 3) Demotivating. In this analysis, I am assuming that the supervisor does not give the student a very narrow concrete topic in advance, which is a very common approach by many supervisors. In this case, the student avoids the Open-ended and Confusing challenges and arrives immediately at the third challenge, with the added problem of not experiencing first-hand those very common challenges. Although there are some benefits to this approach (e.g., efficiency), there are some drawbacks too, because this kind of education does not stand for the contemporary world, but is a relic of the industrial age, which needed people to do mostly well-defined tasks.

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