Teaching and Learning Forum 97 [ Contents ]
A reflection on the teaching of
management information systems
Faculty of Business
Edith Cowan University
I intend to present a critical reflection on my teaching practices in Management Information Systems education, particularly in teaching large groups. I will also consider some of the problems associated with group work including short term work. Personality profiling is useful for effective group work but is time consuming, error prone and may yield inconsistent results since people may self categorise inconsistently depending on their moods or recent events. Ideally teaching should be tailored to suit the target audience but how do we cope with a moving target? In any event how many academics have the time to carry out detailed personality profiling and how many students would welcome the intrusion? I describe a simple and effective strategy which makes personality profiling irrelevant and yet delivers results consistent with the practice.
Large Lecture Groups
From a personal perspective I have always enjoyed lecturing to larger groups of students. The intimacy which small groups engender actively prevents me putting on a performance and I use different techniques for small groups. Large groups cease to be a collection of individuals and become a gestalt - for me the figure is around forty, with my preferred group size being in excess of one hundred and fifty. In such an environment the statistical likelihood of my being able to hit a nerve or a funny spot is much increased. Conventional wisdom holds that most students can not sustain concentration for more than ten minutes at a stretch yet most lectures are scheduled for one or two hours with part time students demanding that all their tuition takes place as close together as possible. Think about it, most films have a multimillion dollar budget and most film makers do not expect to keep their audience enthralled for two hours, on that basis what chance of success does the average academic have? Irrespective of that it is my view that learning should be as much fun as possible (after all people remember the good times). I take an approach that TV channels should take, something for everyone in each lecture.
What works for me
- Setting the scene - In the first lecture of a course I give the students a bill of rights stating what they are allowed to do in the lectures, this must be presented in a positive light. Establishing channels for communication and feedback is essential at this point. Adult education requires active input from the participants and flexibility of content and delivery, yet most universities insist that the course outlines are cast in concrete before the course begins. Developing mechanisms for rapid feedback on content and style is essential, most universities survey students at the end of a course unit by which time it is too late to make alterations, it is a tool of performance management rather than academic effectiveness. Remember that students are often in awe of lecturers, I recommend the election of a spokesperson for the class and provide individual and anonymous channels. Knowing that they have input and that the lecturer is responsive gives the students a sense of empowerment.
- Remembering what the mass lecture is about - the primary function of a lecture is not about presenting information, that is present in the texts and often available in multimedia formats. The lecture is about re-presenting information and providing meta-information, giving a context for what is being covered, highlighting the main points - essentially the conceptual framework and linkage to reality. I find that being able to read body language is real help, the need to distinguish between students who are mulling over concepts, simply bored or just plain lost is important. I approach each lecture with the question "What can I give these people that is important and enjoyable?". Lastly I am always aware of being a slave to the clock, if a lecture is scheduled for two hours and you have nothing of value to say after one hour forty minutes then let the students go - otherwise it is a waste of their time and yours. It is my experience that students are resentful at staying on unnecessarily.
- Being visual - studies show that students retain information that is presented visually better than information presented in other formats. Being visual involves being seen, consider the use of resources that require lights to be dimmed and the subsequent diminution of the role of the academic as lecturer. I find that checking the lighting and viewpoint from different parts of the lecture theatre is a wise move. Brighter clothing can enhance your visual presence (and if used injudiciously can be seriously damaging to your credibility). I endeavour to show signs of life, use gestures effectively and move around the theatre. Often the simple effort of tracking a lecturer around the room is sufficient to prevent lecture fatigue setting in. Also just as students need to see lecturers, you need to able to see them, communication is a two way process.
- Breaking down barriers - some lecture theatres have a filling order similar to churches ie. they fill from the back leaving a gulf of seats between the lecturer and students. Fifty students in a three hundred seat lecture theatre will tend to arrange themselves in randomly in groups of one two or three with lots of space between - a sort of agoraphobics' open day. Grouping the students more closely increases the energy in the class by increasing the chances of random interaction between the students. I remind myself that I have the right to do this - it is my class. Encourage heckling, wise cracks and questions but keep control. Many lecturers feel that they need status and distance to operate effectively and feel threatened or exposed by such practices, student participation is a vital part of education and things such as power dressing can prevent information flow. I sometimes ask a colleague to video me giving a lecture, making sure that they pan to the students regularly so I can see their reaction to me and make a detailed study of it. Most egos wither as a result. I make sure that my students know me as a person, I let them know my hobbies and interests endeavour to find out something about theirs. Taking a few moments to talk to different students in or out of class time is helpful, for lecturing is the most intimate form of relationship marketing. Eye contact is good for most European students, in many other cultures it is considered rude to maintain eye contact with a lecturer, in such cases a side on approach may be more successful.
- Maximising uncertainty - classical information theory shows that we derive the most information from a system when the entropy (uncertainty) is at a maximum. Similarly when students are uncertain as to what is coming next they are attentive and ready to learn. Strategies here include slide building to prevent students reading ahead, the inclusion of "serendipitous" material, drama triggers and "buzz" groups. I classify serendipitous material as anything the students might enjoy which I can in some way make relevant to the course I am teaching - I have used renaissance art, music and history to underline major teaching points in Management Information Systems, or digressed into potted histories of major contributors to the discipline of computing such as Alan Turing. These are not part of the syllabus but my experience has been that students remember the teaching points associated with the material as evidenced by the examination results. In any event exposure to diversity rather than university education may add something of value to a student's life. I restrict the use of such material to no more than 4% of a lecture. Drama triggers when used effectively are excellent for emphasising major teaching points, a short sharp shock to focus the attention - Socrates used to hit his students just before introducing some major point - in politically correct Australia this is not a good move. If overplayed or overused drama triggers lose their effect. As an example I once attended a psychology lecture given at the university of Birmingham by a distinguished and slightly eccentric professor. Part way into the lecture he took of his shoe and placed it on the lectern, a little later its companion followed, then his socks, jacket, tie, shirt and trousers his timing was impeccable since he finished the lecture dressed only in his shorts. His lecture was the talk of the campus. I still keep in contact with some of the people who attended that lecture over twenty years ago and we all remember it well - that is to say we remember a distinguished professor standing there is his underwear. None of us have any recollection about the lecture itself. Drama triggers are often good to break a mood of lethargy or waning attention even if they are not associated with teaching points. I have played my violin and guitar in lectures to illustrate the difference between analog and digital technology and have taught students to juggle so as to explain modes of computer operation and communication. The latter is particularly effective because the learning process is more concrete. I have used buzz groups to some extent, finding that they work well with classes which have a natural tendency to talk. In classes with a high concentration of overseas students sometimes buzz groups fail and there are periods of silence which are tangible. In those cases I introduce a few minutes absolute silence while they contemplate the teaching points. Either way the primary purpose is vouchsafed, ie. introducing variety into the course to prevent attention deficit.
- Honesty is not the best policy - putting a lot of yourself into lectures is good practice. The students sense your involvement and interest in the subject and are more likely to make a commitment as result. However they need to feel "safe" saying something like "I don't know much about this but we'll have fun finding out together" is not a good move, lecturing is like performing a wild animal act - they can smell fear and doubt. Even if I've never taught the course before I can truthfully say "You know every time I teach this course I learn new and interesting things" the students will feel much more secure with this, all I have to do is to deliver the goods. You should not even be totally honest with yourself - if I did not have a cherished illusion of being a "good lecturer" then I doubt that I would be able to function.
When employers list the skills that they require from our graduates, they often list all the transferable skills that are inculcated by the judicious use of group work. When I did my first full time degree the emphasis was on the individual and their efforts. Soon after this when I became an academic at the same institution one of my former lecturers took me to one side and said "Look, I've just latched on to this new teaching concept, you assign work to groups of students, say four, and they do the work as a team" He had "the light in his eyes" and so I asked what were the educational advantages of this method. The answer was immediate "only 25% as much marking - but I've got an idea about getting them to do the assessment as well". It was five years before I revisited the concept. By then I was a senior academic with responsibilities for industry links and I could see how group work would benefit my students. There were two aspects to this, one was analytical and short term where I wanted the students to analyse and discuss cases so as to get the benefit from each others experience, the other where I wanted them to work together over a period of time. In this last case I was hoping to get the teams to tackle jobs of much greater scope than they could as individuals, learning skills about presentation, communications, teamwork and project management. The first time I ran such projects I asked the students to organise themselves into teams. It was not a total disaster but I ended up with stratification, the high flyers formed teams as did the low flyers. Interestingly the high flyers failed to achieve good results since they spent too much time arguing about approaches etc. and the low flyers did not achieve because it was not inherent in their potential. Only the middle achievers demonstrated real success in terms of the outcomes that I had set. By then, via the process of osmosis which pervades all universities I had acquired a patina of educational psychology or at least I knew the names and concepts at which to nod sagely. I had read Jung and was familiar with the concepts introvert and extrovert and added to it Myers-Briggs personality types. I then knew that I needed to profile students and put them into complementary groupings. Detailed profiling was too onerous so I devised a simple instrument which required the students to rate their competencies in terms of: analytical ability, communication skills, organisational skills etc. and assembled the teams myself.
The first time the course ran in this format all went well apart from one student who made no contribution at all, accordingly I awarded a mark of zero. His appeal was based on the fact that the unit outline said that assessment was on a group basis, he freely admitted to doing no work but felt that legally he was entitled to a pass mark because all the other students in his group had passed. Legally his appeal was upheld. A slight modification to the wording on the unit outline was all that was required to prevent similar occurrences but I felt that the scheme could be further altered so that the students would be required to agree on the apportionment of marks before the grades were awarded. Besides ensuring participation this would also ensure that negotiation skills were reinforced. Anticipating potential conflict I stated that in the event of a group being unable to agree on the allocation of marks then I would act as arbitrator. To date I have not had to arbitrate in any such manner.
Working with groups for shorter term matters such as case studies requires a different strategy since there is not time to carry out even brief profiling. Here the benefits I was trying to gain were communication skills and critical discussion of the case material, assessment was not an issue. Knowing how the "judgers" and "perceivers" types operated I knew that I needed to adopt a different strategy for each group but the difficulty was to divide the class. People's self categorisation of personality types will vary according to mood etc. so it would not be possible to profile and classify students at the beginning of the course. In the end the answer was simple, I asked the class to divide themselves into judgers and perceivers on the basis of "Those of you who would like to discuss the case before answering the questions please move to this end of the room. Those of you who would like to answer the questions first and then discuss your answers please move to that end of the room." Simple, effective and with tangible benefits (other than reducing my marking load by 75%!).
What has been presented above is a personal reflection. Many of the things which I use work because I do them in my own way. I hope to have given an insight into my teaching philosophy and how I operate so that others may take, adapt and use some of my methods. I can be contacted via email [email@example.com] for discussion purposes.
|Please cite as: Benson, S. (1997). A reflection on the teaching of management information systems. In Pospisil, R. and Willcoxson, L. (Eds), Learning Through Teaching, p34-37. Proceedings of the 6th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, Murdoch University, February 1997. Perth: Murdoch University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1997/benson.html|
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