Rio Hondo College
From 2003 to 2008 I was a part-time student at Rio Hondo College, graduating with an Associate in Science degree (Computer Information Technology).
This essay recounts some of my experiences (as a senior citizen gone back to school); observations (about students, teachers and education in the 21st century); and musings (on various random topics).
I attempt to write with accuracy, honesty and fairness and try to be informative and entertaining. The opinions expressed are solely my own. Your opinions may differ and I welcome your feedback.
May 29th, 2008
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My First Day at Rio Hondo College
“Ay naku...” I mutter to myself as I park my car “...may paruparong sa tiyan Ko.” Can you imagine, a man my age, a grandfather no less, with butterflies in his stomach?!! When was the last time I had butterflies in my stomach? When I was last in school? Yikes! Nearly forty years ago!
I walk to the Upper Quad; it's crowded with students. I have an urge to turn back. Now. A sudden pang of deep, visceral homesickness strikes me. Oh, God, how I miss my alma mater, UST. My friends. My teachers. Many of them dead now. I miss them. Look at these students! They're kids. A few years older than my own grandchildren.
I enter the Administration building. The halls are clean. No, sterile. The students move about quietly. A far cry from the musty halls of UST—steeped in the cries, shouts and laughter of nearly 400 years of students. These sterile walls are harsh in their silence. How old is Rio Hondo anyway? My God! I'm older than Rio Hondo College!
I look for my classroom. They all look the same. Does it really matter which room I enter? A few students are already there. They look up as I enter. Quizzical looks on their faces. Why am I there? I couldn't be their classmate. Could I be the instructor? I don't look like the kind of guy who would be teaching Chinese 101.
Presbycusis makes it necessary for me to sit close to the front of the room. I spot a desk, in the second row, off from the center of the room. At least I won't be sitting directly in front of the instructor. I sit down. The students look at me. Now they know. I'm their classmate.
As 8AM approaches, more students enter the room. They look around, find a vacant seat. Eventually a ring of empty seats wraps around me. But it's a full class, so the latecomers are sitting at my elbows.
I look around the now packed classroom; no one seems to be over the age of 25.
Dr. Liu enters the room. He surveys the class, spots me, and smiles. And so, my first day at Rio Hondo College has begun.
What has brought me back to school, in my sixth decade of life, is a long story. Certainly there are the personal circumstances—being “semi-retired” (whatever that means). Having a deep and abiding curiosity about things—I've always believed in life-long learning. Still wanting to make a contribution with my life. Hoping to gain some understanding of the world which my grandchildren will inhabit. But perhaps, more than any other reason, just to prove to myself that I could do it.
I didn't have any firm plans for how long I would remain at Rio Hondo College (ultimately I would complete 98 units, roughly thirty classes, in five years). But I did establish some ground rules from the start. I would conduct myself at Rio Hondo College like any other entering freshman student. I would take the same classes, satisfy the same requirements and be subject to the same rules.
It was good to accomplish a personal objective; the years I spent at Rio Hondo College engendered learning about many things and on many levels—far more than I would ever have guessed at the start of this adventure, and well beyond such mundane topics as accounting, mathematics or English.
I hope that some of the lessons I learned will be of interest to others. I welcome comments, other perspectives and points-of-view, as well as outright denigration! It's all useful, and from time to time I will update this essay.
The Role of the Community College in the 21st Century
As with many people who live in the State of California, I viewed the community college system as part of the general landscape. I was unaware of the role which this important California institution plays in the development of the State's human capital.
First, community colleges provide entry to post-secondary education for a segment of the population which might not find that opportunity elsewhere. That was certainly true for two of my children, who attended Rio Hondo College years ago. As deaf persons, their language limitations made it all but impossible for them to gain access to a traditional college or university. One of my children eventually earned a Certificate of Achievement in drafting technology.
Second, community colleges serve as a channel by which new technology is transferred. Many of the older students whom I met at Rio Hondo were there to “take a computer class.” When we think of new technologies, those which may define the 21st century, such as environmental technology and biological technology, how will people learn about these new technologies? Certainly the community colleges would be a means for new technology transfer.
However, when I speak of the role of the community college in the 21st Century, I'm thinking of something very different: The “Baby Boomers.”
Thanks to statin drugs, baby aspirin and Jack La Lanne, Boomers may expect to live long past actuarial predictions—and they expect to live those years in good health. However, I can say, with great confidence, that most Boomers do not want to spend the last twenty or thirty years of their lives, after age 65, “in retirement,” living on social security benefits. Neither do most Boomers aspire for a second career at Walmart or McDonalds. Not only do Boomers not aspire for years of retirement, many of them recognize that to do so would bankrupt the social security system.
I believe that many Boomers will want to explore second (or third) careers. What a marvelous opportunity the community colleges offer to Boomers for exploring new areas of interest. This is what I see as a role for community colleges in the 21st Century—sheparding the Boomers through a life transition.
[Update: It was gratifying to learn that the American Association of Community Colleges has been focusing their attention on precisely this issue—preparing senior citizens for new careers. See http://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=100284053.]
Students, Teachers, Credibility, and “Power Relationships”
When I was in high school (nearly fifty years ago), students were divided into two general groups: the “cool kids” and the “un-cool kids,” whom we might now call “nerds.” The cool kids wore cool clothes and smoked cigarettes. The nerdy kids wore un-cool clothes and hung slide rule cases from their belts. (This was before the invention of the pocket protector.) Interestingly, membership in the cool/un-cool groups remained unchanged even when students transferred between schools. It was never the case that an un-cool kid became cool by moving to a new school.
I now understand that membership in the cool/un-cool groups remains unchanged with age. No matter that I was nearly fifty years their senior, at Rio Hondo College I immediately gravitated to the nerdy kids. We talked about setting up our routers, which version of Linux we preferred and how hard it is to find a date. The cool kids are still cool. They still wear cool clothes and many of them still smoke—although it's decidedly less cool than it was fifty years ago.
[Update: I've learned about a psychological phenomenon called “regressive pull.” Perhaps that applies here! Also, My former classmate and friend Kevin Chan tells me that he never perceived a distinction between the “cool” and “uncool” students. Another lesson learned—we all perceive reality differently!]
The cool kids still regard the un-cool kids with disdain. I recall, during my first semester, making some comment during class. A young woman (she couldn't have been more than 18 years old), looked at me, rolled her eyes and turned away just oozing disdain. I almost blurted out “young lady, if you can't respect other people's opinions, you can just go to your room.” And then I realized that I was powerless. Not only could I not send this disdainful young woman to her room, I had no control over anything in this classroom—all of the power was with the instructor.
This incident caused me to begin to ruminate on two issues. First, how does one establish credibility? Second, how does an instructor use his or her power over students?
Throughout my working life I was considered to be a credible person. Indeed, I made my living because of my credibility. It was an odd and unsettling experience to now be considered as just some old guy, gone back to school, who probably isn't very bright (or else why would he be here as a freshman student).
I came to realize that so much of what we perceive as credibility is established by context. In the corporate environment an individual may gain credibility by dressing the part (“dress for success”), by having an impressive title or by working for a prestigious company. Indeed, in the corporate world, some people can get by purely on context alone. But stripped of a “credibility context,” sitting in a Rio Hondo classroom, how does one become credible?
One of the skills I worked to develop at Rio Hondo College was how to be viewed as a credible person independent of context. I did this in two ways. First, through performance. In most (but not all) of my classes, performance on assignments and examinations garners credibility. But, perhaps more importantly, by assuring that I knew my facts before opening my mouth. (“Place brain in gear before putting mouth in motion.”)
For example. In a conversation with one of my classes mates, I offhandedly remarked “...well, everyone alive today is descended from one man who lived in Africa about 60,000 years ago.” She rolled her eyes and laughed. I learned to say the same thing in a different way. “Have you heard of the Genographic project? Based on studies of DNA samples they have concluded that...” Knowing the facts was usually a good strategy—it deflected skepticism away from me and towards the alleged source.
I also learned to prefix statements with the words “in my opinion.” Something I now do so routinely as to be annoying.
The other issue I thought a great deal about is the so called “power relationship” between instructor and students and how that relationship shapes the instructional environment.
During my first semester at Rio Hondo College I took a class taught by an instructor who managed the class more like an informal social gathering. A charming, funny man, over fifty, he especially enjoyed chitchatting with attractive young ladies. While this might have been flattering to the women, I thought it was inappropriate and “creepy.” This instructor gave tests which were graded subjectively. I earned a grade of “B” in his class. As it turned out this was the only grade of “B” I would earn at Rio Hondo. I graduated with a GPA of 3.959. In my opinion, I was unfairly denied the recognition of a 4.0 GPA by an instructor who was not objective.
As I became more insightful about the “power relationship” in the classroom, I realized that good instructors establish an atmosphere in which students feel free to express themselves without fear that it might affect their grades.
In my opinion, Dr. Vernon Padgett, of the psychology department, epitomizes this skill. Dr. Padgett establishes a classroom environment where grading is almost completely objective. (He even circulates a spreadsheet whenever grades are updated.) There is an atmosphere in Dr. Padgett's classes that a student can express opinions freely without fear that his or her grade might be affected.
This is a far cry from some other classes where the instructor seems to welcome opinions only if they are consistent with his or her own opinions. I feel that the classroom is a place where many opinions should be expressed since they represent points-of-view which I may never have considered.
Once I became sensitive to this classroom dynamic, I judged an instructor on the first class day, and on occasion would drop or change a class. In one case, I withdrew from a class with a grade of “W,” and retook the class later, rather than put my GPA at risk.
Is this good for the learning environment? Having lived through the turmoil of the 1960's, I remember when so called “alternative universities” were established. These were unconventional institutions which offered a “non-graded” classroom environment. At the time, I didn't understand this. Now, in my sixth decade of life, I can see how such an environment would engender learning and academic exploration. This may not be a good environment for learning mathematics, but what about political science?
A year or so after entering Rio Hondo College I discovered the website www.ratemyprofessors.com. Finally, a way for students to add some balance to the classroom “power relationship!” I found the evaluations on this website to be more-or-less accurate. In selecting my classes I would first rely on the feedback of other students, and then consult www.ratemyprofessors.com.
How do public on-line ratings affect teaching? Does teaching now become a popularity contest? In one case I had a teacher who was superb, but unpopular. His on-line ratings were dismal. Yet, he was an excellent teacher. This is one of those cases where the “wisdom of the crowd” may not be valid if there isn't a large enough crowd. For some instructors there are only a few evaluations, and disgruntled people tend to be the vocal ones. I think that the operators of www.ratemyprofessors.com should expand their model, allowing college or university departments to utilize this on-line service for instructor evaluations. This would take the administration of evaluations out of the hands of schools and results would be available to the public. I don't expect to see this happen any time soon.
[Update: One of my former teachers, after reading this essay, directed me to http://rateyourstudents.blogspot.com.]
Have students changed over the past half-century?
Although students are living in a multi-media, interconnected world, they seem to be weak in communication skills. This seems to be a contradiction. For example, the student newspaper, El Paisano (April 11, 2007) has an article entitled “Clery Act in plain language” which states:
I'm hoping this article is supposed to be a joke, and I just didn't get it. However, I've seen students' writing which is not much better. I've even found writing mistakes in the college class schedule! My heart goes out to the English teachers—they have their work cut out for them. One student thought that Shakespeare wrote in Latin!
Mathematics is another area fraught with difficulty. In my opinion, Rio Hondo College does a remarkable job of providing students with basic (some would say “remedial”) mathematics classes which eventually lead students to college level work.
One area which I find encouraging is the evolution of social values. I am old enough to remember when African American men were lynched. Today, students of all backgrounds and ethnicities seem to be more tolerant of differences and less insular than my generation. Perhaps, this is where the multi-media, interconnected world has had an effect—exposure to differences has produced tolerance. This evolution of social values has proceed at a dizzying pace. Even at the time I entered Rio Hondo College in August of 2003, the thought of an African American man running for president of the United States would have been pure fantasy.
These kids, for better or worse, are the product of decisions made by my generation. For example, the Viet Nam war. (“My dad came back from Viet Nam all messed up...”) Or the sexual revolution. (“My mom was a slut...”) Here, before my very eyes, are the ripple effects of social change. And yet, these kids are remarkably resilient—they make the best of the lives they were dealt. Just like my generation did. And so, I guess the answer to the question I posed is “not much.”
My Very Best Teachers
I was chitchatting with one of my neighbors—a lady with a masters degree who teaches at one of the local school districts. I told her that I was taking some classes at Rio Hondo College and had some excellent instructors. She told me that she was a graduate of Rio Hondo herself and that Rio Hondo was known as “the Harvard on the hill.” My brows raised. Although I've enjoyed my stay at Rio Hondo, and think it's a good school, I had never quite thought of it as being in the same league as Harvard.
I consulted Google. Sure enough, the term “Harvard on the hill” was there, in the Urban Dictionary, referring to any “junior college.” Maybe not a pejorative, but it doesn't sound like an accolade.
So, maybe Rio Hondo College isn't in the same league as Harvard, however, in my opinion, I've had a few teachers who are “world class.” (I'm only considering on-campus classes.)
For example, anyone who aspires to teach at the post-secondary level should enroll, for one semester, in any class taught by Vernon Padgett of the psychology department. (Personally, I strongly recommend “human lifespan development.”) Over a period of many years, Dr. Padgett has evolved style, techniques and materials which work together to create an excellent learning experience. His grading is eminently fair, he creates an academically open environment and he has the experience to teach his subject matter with depth and perspective. I took three classes taught by Dr. Padgett and only wish he taught more.
Manuel Baca only teaches one class—introductory political science. Another case of leaving the students wanting more! Dr. Baca, previously a dean and acting president of Rio Hondo College, chooses to remain in the classroom. He brings to the classroom years of experience and insight.
The piano teacher, Jannine Livingston. Even if you hate music, it's worth taking her music appreciation class just to experience her “style.” Again, a teacher with many years of experience who brings to her subject perspective and insight. And she's a great musician!
Mathematics instructors always seem to get a bad rap. Two mathematics instructors, Mark Littrell and Firouz Mosharraf are simply world class. Both with years of experience and depth of knowledge, yet with widely differing style. Mr. Littrell creates what I call “Technicolor whiteboard notes.” Over the course of a semester he creates the equivalent of a text book using multi-colored whiteboard markers. Mr. Mosharraf teaches without technology—establishing a connection with students through insight and experience.
When I went to school “gym class” was a part of our daily activities. It was torture. Being the only obese kid in gym class was a life-scaring experience. Imagine my dismay when I learned that I would have to take “gym class” at Rio Hondo College in order to earn a degree! I looked at the catalog for two units of physical education which I thought I might be able to successfully complete. Since I'm still ambulatory, and indeed enjoy walking, I signed up for Laurel Gagen's walking class. Mrs. Gagen creates an atmosphere where everyone, regardless of age or physical condition, feels comfortable. Although I was the oldest student in the class, and consistently finished the walks in last place, Mrs. Gagen was there, right behind me, making sure that I, and all of the students, were Okay.
I needed one more unit of physical education. I reluctantly decided to take Golf. I've always regarded golfers with disdain. I just can't appreciate hitting little balls with sticks into holes. My thanks to Ron Eastman, the golf teacher, for showing me the “true meaning of golf.” And what is the “true meaning of golf?” Well, for ordinary people, it's going out to the golf course, mingling and socializing with people, getting some exercise, and having an enjoyable experience. And if it's raining, you can go bowling instead.
These instructors, who stand out in my mind as Rio Hondo College's best, represent about a quarter of my instructors. Perhaps the greatest benefit I gained from my years at Rio Hondo College was observing great teachers at work. They were all different—very different. Yet they were all great teachers. Is there any commonality between them? As far as I can tell they all have several traits in common: passion, experience, in depth knowledge of their subject material and a sense of fairness. They love what they're teaching and they want to share it with others.
The New World of Textbooks
As the co-author of a technical book, I sometimes fantasize about earning royalties from a textbook. One semester of textbook sales vastly overshadows the life-time sales of most technical books. My exposure to the new world of textbooks has disabused me of that fantasy.
Modern textbooks aren't books in the traditional sense—they are enterprises; the paper copy you buy is only one facet of the product. There's the CD with supplementary materials. (In the past, we used the library for supplementary materials.) There's the on-line website with practice exams. (In the past, we studied for exams by reading the book.) There's the instructor support materials such as PowerPoint charts and a test bank. (In the past, instructors created their own materials—it was called teaching!)
I sound like a Luddite—I'm not! My concern is that the new breed of textbooks can be a distraction from learning rather than enhancing learning.
For example, almost every page of a modern textbook is crammed with photos, sidebars, boxes, etc., in addition to the main text. I find it hard to read the text because of all of the distractions on the page! Here's an interesting experiment for Dr. Padgett's research methods class. Have a random sampling of students read a page of text from either a modern textbook or a simple black and white printout. Then test for comprehension. I'd put my money on the simple, black and white, non-distractions page.
But to be truthful, modern textbooks don't have to be read! It's bizarre that students would buy textbooks which don't have to be read, but it seems that way. First, you must understand that most of the time students will be tested with multiple-choice examinations. So, students only need to exercise their recognition memory, not recall memory. Scanning the textbook for defined terms and key words will probably assure a passing grade on a test. The textbook almost certainly has chapter or section summaries or key points. Those will be on the test. And finally, looking at the practice exams on the book's website is always a good idea. Voila—an “A”on the test. But is this learning?!!
All of this glitz doesn't come cheap. For most of my classes, the cost of the textbook exceeded the cost of the class. In many cases the cost of the textbook was not merely exorbitant, but punitive. Like many other students, I quickly learned to buy textbooks on-line. The risk in purchasing on-line is in dropping a class and not being able to return the book. All-in-all, however, I've learned to avoid the college bookstore whenever possible.
As if exorbitantly priced textbooks weren't enough to satisfy the publishers, there seems to be an effort to revise textbooks each year, thereby degrading the used book market. There simply are no subjects taught at Rio Hondo College which require annual textbook updates. Not even in rapidly changing areas such as computer information technology. And in some subject areas, such as mathematics, fifty year old textbooks are still usable!
The most extreme case of what I call textbook extortion occurred in my calculus class. A new textbook cost over $200. Some of the students were forced to download pirated copies from a website called www.isohunt.com. One can hardly blame them.
[Update: I've learned about the California Open Source Textbook Project (http://www.opensourcetext.org).]
Another aspect of the twenty-first century textbook is authorship. Although the books have nominal authors, no one person could possibly compile all of the material delivered in the final product. To me, it looks like authorship by committee. The clearest example of this was a book used in my systems analysis class. This is a field about which I have some knowledge. It is a field for which a variety of competing methodologies exist. The textbook attempted to assimilate all of these methodologies and techniques producing a useless mishmash. I can see how this might happen. A committee probably decided that the book needed to address all of these different techniques. They created a book which a search committee could then review while checking-off a list
One final observation about modern textbooks. I noticed what seemed to be an attempt to communicate social messages, even when the subject matter didn't lend itself to the effort. For example, a word problem in mathematics, which might have been phrased as “you mix 3 pounds of almonds costing $5.99 a pound with 2 pounds of peanuts...” now becomes “Yolanda mixes 3 pounds of almonds...” Textbooks also include photographs of all sizes, shapes and colors of people, presumably communicating social inclusion.
My best example of this is the textbook used for introductory computer information technology. Each of the fourteen chapters begins with a section entitled “Picture Yourself.” A bright, perky face greets each chapter with a caption such as “Picture Yourself on a System Development Team.” None of the “Picture Yourself” people, however, seems to be over the age of 25. I guess the message is clear: Senior citizens don't belong on system development teams. And it wasn't just this one book. With the exception of history textbooks, none of the textbooks show any images of senior citizens. The history books, of course, show pictures of older people—as historical figures.
The New World of Instructional Technology
I received my education in plain classrooms with slate blackboards. When I was a child our desks had holes for inkwells, although we didn't use the inkwells themselves. When I returned to school in 2003, the Internet was part of the landscape. So, we should be light years ahead in educational achievement. Right?
Which technology, for better or worse, has had the greatest impact on education? The Internet? On-line classes? Powerful scientific calculators? Overhead projectors? The word processor? The personal computer? The DVD? All of these are technologies which didn't exist when I first went to school.
In my opinion, the one technology which has had the greatest impact on education is the Scantron machine. Or, perhaps to be more general, the widespread use of multiple-choice testing which Scantron and other platforms support. This technology allows many more students to be tested than was practical fifty years ago. However, the testing paradigm they support only tests one aspect of learning, recognition memory.
For example, here are a couple of actual multiple choice questions from a CIT 101 test:
1. A(n) _____ verifies that a required field contains date. (Answer: completeness check)
2. Deleting unneeded files _____ storage space. (Answer: reduces the size of files and frees up)
2. Deleting unneeded files _____ storage space. (Answer: reduces the size of files and frees up)
Here's a question which was never posed in CIT 101: “Your brother, father and grandmother are each planning to buy a new computer. Can you give each of them some recommendations about what to buy or not buy?”
This kind of open ended question allows many different aspects of computing to be explored: accelerated hardware (for gaming), business applications, recreational computing, the need for computer security. In other words, applying knowledge learned to real-world problems.
From my own experience and observation, I see how students orient themselves to learning by multiple choice. Scanning the textbook for defined terms and key words will probably assure a passing grade on a test. But is this learning?!! Is it any wonder that some students will come to class wearing iPod earphones? It doesn't matter what an instructor has to say, if you can pass the course with a multiple-choice test.
I had one teacher who was “old school,” Mr. Mosharraf, for calculus. Although multiple choice tests are widely used in mathematics classes, Mr. Mosharraf's tests required worked out solutions which he hand graded. As a result, Mr. Mosharraf had an in-depth understanding of both class and individual areas of strength and weakness. During lectures, he would frequently elaborate one area or another saying “some of you are having trouble with...” In my opinion, it is this kind of focused attention which makes teaching effective.
So if we throw out all of the Scantron machines, the student's will flourish? Not at all! I view this as an evolving technology. We have the ability now to automate testing which allows free-form responses. Students' responses can be parsed and analyzed using the same technology that search engines use for analyzing queries. Eventually artificial intelligence engines may “read” students' responses.
In the interim, however, good teachers seem to use a blend of both automated and traditional testing.
I see the word processor as another technology which has had a strategic impact on learning.
It's fascinating to watch the students in the computer lab working on their writing assignments. What's immediately obvious is that they are massively multi-tasking. With their iPods, text messaging, IRC chats, working on their writing assignment is occupying only a small part of their consciousness. When they do write, with their word processor, the computer screen becomes a blank slate, or sand box, which they utilize to form written structures.
Compare this with fifty years ago. Our “word processor” was pencil and paper. Of course, we submitted assignments typewritten, but the typewriter was used to produce the finished product. You could never use the typewriter as a blank slate, since any changes or corrections were difficult to make. (Worse yet if you used carbon paper!)
The writing assignments of fifty years ago involved a great deal of forethought and rumination. By the time we picked up pencil and paper we had a general form or shape in our mind of what we wanted to write. We even wrote outlines!
The word processor is only one example of tools which affect what I call the “in cranio” vs. “in silico” balance. Another is the use of powerful scientific calculators in mathematics classes. For example, on my first examination in pre-calculus, we were asked to solve a very traditional problem. Given a rectangular sheet of paper, what size squares should be cut out of each corner to produce a box with maximum volume. I knew, from my prior training, that this was a simple maxima/minima problem. However, this was pre-calculus. We hadn't yet introduced differentiation which would be necessary to solve this problem. I struggled trying to figure out how to solve the problem with the tools we had been taught. I couldn't.
The same problem appeared on the final exam. By that time I knew how to solve the problem. After setting up the basic equation for volume, enter that equation into a scientific calculator and let the calculator find the maximum value.
I wonder if the use of technology, and this more “problem solving” approach, are responsible for the elimination of theorem proving in mathematics classes. I can remember when knowing how to prove theorems was an essential part of understanding mathematics.
I honestly don't know which is better, “in cranio” vs. “in silico,” but I know that they represent very different ways of working—indeed of thinking. I suspect those cognitive differences spill over into how one interacts with the world at large.
I took one physics class which had a hands-on laboratory. This was the only place on campus where I saw Apple computers being used. The tools available in this computer-based physics laboratory were stunning. Motion sensors, accelerometers, data manipulation and reduction software. Wow! But again, “in cranio” vs. “in silico,” is it learning? One of our first physics experiments involved estimating the gravitational constant, g. We used a video of something like a tennis ball being fired into the air. We used software to digitize data points, did some numerical calculations and had an estimate for g.
When I took physics in high school, we did a similar experiment. As I recall we dropped a weight to which was attached a paper tape. (So called “ticker tape” was then readily available.) The tape passed between the clapper and gong of an ordinary household doorbell. As the weight dropped, “dimples” were pounded into the paper tape. Knowing that the bell rang at the rate of household alternating current (60 Hz), and measuring the space between the dots, allowed us to graph distance vs. time and ultimately estimate g. Whew! So much work to do what the Apple computer can do in a few milliseconds. But which version of this experiment results in “deeper” learning? Another case of “in cranio” vs. “in silico.” I don't have the answer to this question—I'm just glad that I've had the opportunity to do this experiment both ways.
When I first learned that some classes at Rio Hondo College were taught “on-line,” I was skeptical. Without human interaction, is this really a class? Why don't I just read the textbook and take the tests?
My first on-line class was CIT 101, the introductory “computer literacy” class. It was very reminiscent of a so called “home study” course which I took in the 1960's. A number of very structured “modules,” punctuated by assignments and examinations which were mailed to the school for grading and feedback. The computer, of course, speeds up this process. And there's another twist: discussion groups.
For reasons which I don't quite understand, students are required to participate in discussions. Honestly, if I wanted to participate in discussions, I would attend the class on campus. Also, the discussion paradigm on-line isn't the same as in the classroom. On-line discussions (“threads”) may evoke new ideas, but they're not moderated by a knowledgeable, trusted source (the instructor), and so it leaves open the possibility of propagating mis-information.
On one occasion I shared my opinion, in the discussion group, that our textbook, indeed the entire class, was very oriented towards Microsoft products. The instructor contacted me, by e-mail, outside of the discussion group, to defend the course. I still have no idea why the instructor didn't participate in the discussion, as she would have in class, to keep the record straight.
The second on-line class I took was introductory accounting. The instructor was lax in responding to questions. I fell behind during the first week. I knew that falling behind in an on-line class would be difficult to catch up. Frequently, on campus classes fall behind, and the instructor adjusts accordingly. That doesn't happen on-line. I dropped the class and eventually took accounting on campus. In retrospect, at least for me, it was better to have the real-time interaction with the instructor for this type of class.
The third class I took on-line was English 101. I felt that this type of subject matter was very well suited to on-line teaching. The instructor, Dr. Dana Vazquez conducted this class in a very professional manner. On the one occasion when I wanted to discuss an essay in more detail, I met with her on campus. Any doubts I had about the effectiveness of on-line classes were put to rest.
All of this new technology has enabled much more sophisticated cheating! Apparently students have used text messaging during examinations. The seemingly infinite Internet gives students an opportunity to plagiarize with little chance of getting caught. But wait! One of my instructors required that we submit our term papers through the website www.turnitin.com, where authenticity is verified. I can see this as a kind of arms race, with each side deploying ever more sophisticated weapons.
In the case of on-line classes, how does an instructor prevent cheating when you never meet the students? In fact, I have a more basic concern. How does one verify that the person completing the course is the person enrolled? I could imagine establishing a business where students in third-world countries complete on-line courses for American students. (The use of proxy servers would anonymize their location.)
It's all a brave new world. What's the future of on-line education? In my opinion it's Second Life. And that's a whole other story!
Computer Information Technology Training
I've spent most of my working life in the field of computer information technology (CIT). I have a deep interest in this subject and so I selected CIT as my major at Rio Hondo College. I also have a great deal of interest in training Information Technology (IT) professionals—I believe that they are the lifeblood of the information age.
On paper, Rio Hondo College's CIT curriculum is magnificent. A potpourri of subjects which touch on, for example, accounting, business management, programming, systems analysis and applications. In my opinion, completing this curriculum would assure that a student has entry level skills for almost any non-engineering/non-scientific IT organization. As with so many things, however, the devil's in the details.
A number of the part-time business instructors I had were weak. It must be a difficult job to hire academic staff considering the pay scales offered by community colleges. Rio Hondo College, therefore, should be commended for maintaining a stable and competent full-time CIT faculty. However, in a field which is as rapidly changing as is IT, it is virtually impossible for anyone to maintain state-of-the-art expertise or knowledge. From time-to-time, that becomes apparent.
For example, the CIT department is, for all practical purposes, a “Microsoft shop.” When I suggested to one of the instructors that some attention should be focused on Linux or Unix, as well as open-source software, I was told that Rio Hondo was preparing students for work in the “real world.” Hopefully, now some five years later, that instructor has been disabused of the belief that Unix (which runs the Internet) and open-source software (which some national governments have adopted as a standard), aren't “real world.” By-the-way, the FireFox browser, a widely used alternative to Microsoft's Explorer, is an open-source product.
When I say that the CIT department is a “Microsoft shop,” here's what I mean. Virtually every personal computer in the department has a copy of Microsoft Office installed. I have no idea what the license fees are, I will assume that those copies are not free. Yet, there is a fully compatible and fully comparable suite of applications called OpenOffice, which is available at no charge—it's open-source software. In fact, I'm writing these words, at this moment, not with Microsoft Word, but with its OpenOffice counterpart, Writer. OpenOffice Writer is virtually identical to Microsoft Word, and it's free!
As you observe students using the computers in the library, you see that they mostly access the Internet. There's no reason why a Linux based computer, running FireFox, couldn't be used for that application. Why is Rio Hondo College paying licensing fees to Microsoft when there are free and open alternatives?!!
In my opinion, by the time a student completes the CIT curriculum, he or she should, at the very least, know of the existence of open source products. It would be better yet if Rio Hondo College had a course on open source technology.
I had considerable contact with other students enrolled in the CIT program. They mostly fell into one of three categories. There were students who wanted to learn various applications—of course, these were the Microsoft Office applications. These students were looking to improve their job skills. The second group of students were those majoring in CIT hoping to find an entry level position in that field. The smallest group were the serious “geeks” who planned to transfer to a four-year institution to pursue a degree in a computer related field.
In my opinion, the first group of students were best served by the CIT program. The teaching of applications has become cut-and-dried. The textbooks are complete and comprehensive. I had one instructor who literally read the textbook to the students and then demonstrated what he had just read! Students come into school now with a familiarity of graphical user interfaces—it's no longer necessary to teach students how to use a mouse! All of this makes teaching applications very straight forward.
Of the CIT majors, I felt that many of them lacked the technical background to pursue highly technical jobs. However, that wasn't their objective; they were adequately served by the program. The super “geeks,” however, really didn't belong in a community college program.
So how does one evaluate the effectiveness of Rio Hondo's CIT program? In my opinion, a survey of CIT graduates of the past five years would yield insight about how effective the program has been in preparing students for employment or university studies. Such a survey could also help establish future directions for the CIT program.
For those students who have completed some of the more technical courses at Rio Hondo, such as the JAVA programming language or CISCO networking, how many have obtained technical certifications? I believe that number is quite small.
So what does all of this rambling and rumination leave me with? A sense that programs, like Rio Hondo's CIT program, can never fully meet the needs of the IT community and that IT offshore outsourcing will be a fact of life for the foreseeable future.
[Update: The CIT department has introduced new courses on PC Maintenance and Information Security. Still lacking are courses on new emerging technologies: cloud computing, Internet programming languages (such as PERL, RUBY and PHP), and, of course, still nothing on open source technology. How about a course on “Creating IPhone Applications?”]
Disservice to Deaf Students and the Deaf Community
Although my five years at Rio Hondo College was a throughly enjoyable experience, there were a couple of problem situations, one of which involves the college's service to deaf students and the deaf community.
I write these words from the perspective of a parent of three deaf children, now grown. I have been involved with the deaf community for most of my life.
Two of my deaf children attended Rio Hondo College. Quite a few years ago one of my children earned a certificate in drafting technology at Rio Hondo. In my opinion, my son was able to complete his certificate program at Rio Hondo only because the American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter assigned to him overstepped her role as an interpreter, and became a de facto instructional aide.
In recent years, I asked one of our deaf employees to attend a computer class at Rio Hondo. Although ASL interpreters were assigned to his class, he did not accomplish what I had expected. Initially, I thought this was because of his shortcomings—now I realize that the college's support services for deaf students were inadequate.
I came to this conclusion quite serendipitously. One of my classmates, in a hands-on computer applications class, was deaf. By coincidence, the student sat directly in front of me in the classroom. It was a perfect arrangement. I was able to view the ASL interpreter and also able to see what the deaf student was doing at the computer. This situation lasted for about sixteen weeks, giving me ample opportunity to see how services were delivered to this deaf student.
I came to the conclusion that interpreters were not prepared for a computer applications class and that the basic interpreting setup was inadequate to meet the needs of the student. I will elaborate.
Because this was a three hour class, two interpreters were assigned to the student. They alternated interpreting at roughly twenty minute intervals. While one interpreter was interpreting, the other went outside to talk on the phone, or smoke a cigarette, or just read a book or magazine. In my opinion, the interpreters took no special interest in the student's success. On some occasions the interpreters would leave early—I usually pitched in, whenever possible, and interpreted for the student.
I was amazed that the interpreters had not established signs to be used for computer terms. One of the interpreters would use the ASL sign for “table” (a piece of furniture with four legs) for a relational database table. The first time I saw this, I almost burst out laughing. It became less funny each time that mistake was made. The proper ASL sign would be for “table” in the sense of a chart.
It seems to me that it would be easy enough for the two interpreters to look at the glossary of terms in the textbook and agree as to which signs would be used for specialized terms. They didn't do this.
Of more concern was the basic interpreting setup. They used the traditional “church style” interpreting model. The ASL interpreter was seated a few feet in front of the deaf student, facing the student.
As anyone with a modicum of familiarity with deaf persons knows, deaf people have a single focus of attention, and that focus is visual. Hearing students, of course, can focus their attention both visually and aurally. This is what allows hearing students to take notes in class—they alternatively focus visually on the instructor and on their notebook, while listening to their instructor speak. Deaf students have difficulty taking notes since any time they look at their notebook, they stop “hearing” the instructor.
In this situation the instructor was lecturing while simultaneously operating his computer. His computer display was projected. Hearing students would therefore alternatively focus their visual attention on the projected display and their own desktop display, attempting to duplicate the instructor's operations, while all the time listening to the instructor.
This was impossible for the deaf student. The deaf student could either look at the interpreter, look at the projected display or look at the desktop display. Of course, with each change of gaze, the focus of concentration is broken.
From my vantage point, I could see that the student couldn't keep up with the instructor and was completely flummoxed. The ASL interpreters, however, just kept moving ahead completely oblivious to the “drowning” student in their midst.
How should interpreting have been performed to meet the needs of this deaf student? I discussed this situation with a deaf graduate student at Cal State Northridge, which has a large deaf student population. I was told that the proper way to have interpreted in this situation was for the interpreter to stand, not be seated, directly adjacent to the projected computer display, so that the deaf student could see the computer display and the interpreter with a single gaze. The interpreter should assure that the deaf student could alternate gaze between the projected computer display and the desktop display without missing any commentary.
One final comment regarding the “ho-hum” attitude of the interpreters. I wonder if their attitude might be improved if they were paid a bonus based on the student's final grade. Of course, ideas like this are too radical for academic institutions. It was just a thought—a thought from a parent of deaf kids.
What I view as Rio Hondo College's disservice to the deaf community extended to my very last day at the college—graduation ceremony. The college would not have provided an ASL interpreter for graduation ceremony, for the benefit of the deaf community, including my family, were it not for my intervention.
After rehearsal was completed, I approached Ms. Butler privately. I reiterated my request that an ASL interpreter be provided. What ensued was an exchange of unpleasant words which concluded with me saying: “Rio Hondo College is a publicly funded community college which has accessibility requirements.” Ms. Butler said that “next year” her letter would not include any mention of sign language interpreters.
It will be interesting to see what happens with the graduation ceremony of 2009. Will the Whittier deaf community be unwelcome?
A Dark and Disturbing Experience
Sadly, I had a truly disturbing experience at Rio Hondo College—attendance at a class in which the instructor created a hostile environment for certain students.
First of all, I should mention that I have been an obese person all of my life. I was on my first physician supervised diet, over fifty years ago, at the age of ten. I have been on numerous weight loss programs and have known many people, mostly women, with eating disorders. Even at Rio Hondo College I've met bulimic women who claim to be on “cleansing” diets.
Buoyed by my thoroughly delightful experience in Mrs. Gagen's walking class, I enrolled in “Fitness Through Rhythmic Aerobics.” The instructor, Diane Stankevitz, made comments about “fat people” which I found offensive. Since I've been obese all of my life, I've grown accustomed to insensitive comments.
Ms. Stankevitz apparently believes that obesity is the result of “food addiction” and that obese people don't control their eating—that's why they're fat. The stereotype is that obese people are “weak willed” and therefore fat. The “food addiction” theory of obesity, widely accepted when I was a child, is no longer accepted by the mainstream medical community. In fact, some people hypothesize that “food addiction” is the result of, not the cause of obesity. But is this a topic which should be taught or debated in an aerobics class?
In addition to showing what I considered to be an offensive video, unrelated to aerobics, Ms. Stankevitz would periodically pause the video to interject her comments. “You want to have sympathy for these people, but...”
As an obese person, being forced to watch this video in class was a humiliating experience. Of course, I could simply have walked out. However, this instructor had previously told us that we could leave the classroom only with her permission. I stayed and endured.
I also believe that it was inappropriate for Ms. Stankevitz to require students to maintain food diaries for submission as a graded assignment. In fact, the Ms. Stankevitz distributed a Microsoft Access program, which she had written, for the purpose of maintaining and printing food diaries.
Some people believe that maintaining detailed food diaries is part of an obsessive-compulsive syndrome associated with eating disorders. Is this an activity which should be assigned in an aerobics class?
I wonder what effect all of this might have on the vulnerable young women in this class. I wouldn't want my two granddaughters exposed to this instructor!
I would guess that Ms. Stankevitz was greatly relieved when I dropped her class; I took Mr. Eastman's golf class—it was a delightful and joyous experience.