Teaching Unbundled

The Atlantic ran an interesting article regarding the process for obtaining certification as a teacher. The general theme of the article was that...

Schools should make it easier -- not harder -- for mid-career professionals to enter the classroom.

I agree that we need to make this process easier for everybody and that we need to achieve this goal in such a way that doesn't reduce the quality of potential teaching candidates. With that said, I think the best way to make teaching more accessible is not to eliminate the certificaion process but to redefine how one views the act of teaching. I think that the many activities currently labeled as teaching should be "unbundled" and handled by a group of experts instead of one person.

Teaching is not really one activity. This becomes apparent when reading through both The Atlantic article and its comments. If you've ever done any teaching you already know this.

What are some of the main areas of expertise required of a teacher? Remember, I'm coming at this from the perspective of a college instructor. I realize things differ in K-12.

  • Subject matter mastery. A teacher must thoroughly understand their field of study and stay current with new and developing trends in that field.
  • Curriculum design. A teacher must be able to take their field of study and break it down into learnable components using a combination of experience and best practices based on modern educational theory.
  • Curriculum development. A teacher must either license pre-built tests and activities from a publisher of these materials or build these items themselves. This process can also include the curation of resources from online and print materials.
  • Assessment. A teacher must be able to assess that their students are learning the subject matter in a measurable way and use that data to revise the curriculum if the students are not achieving the goals. Assessment is a formal process separate from grading.
  • Learning delivery and classroom management. A teacher must deliver the material, in some form, to the students. They must keep order and pay close attention to identifying and meeting student needs during the course.
  • Data processing. A teacher must grade, take attendance, and deal with the bureaucracy required by the modern learning environment (filing reports, dealing with individualized student requests, complying with various state, federal, and accreditation requirements, etc.).

I teach. I know which of these items I'm good at and which I'm not. What if somebody else could handle the parts of my job that I'm not very good at doing? This would leave me the time to focus on those areas where I know I can create the most value for my students. What if teachers could specialize in just one or two of the areas I've listed above?

The unbundling of teaching activites is already happening in face-to-face courses. Schools and teachers are licensing more and more learning and assessment materials from book publishers and also integrating larger numbers of free online resources, such as the Khan Academy, into their courses.

Unbundling is also happening in online courses and is most evident in MOOCs. How might the development and operation of a MOOC be viewed through the list of teaching activites stated above? These courses have Subject Matter Experts (SME) that know the source material inside and out. SMEs work with Instructional Designers to design and develop the course and its corresponding materials. Programmers, Artists, Audio Producers, and Video Producers may be brought in to assist in the development of the course materials. Data is collected through the learning interface and analyzed by a combination of analytic software, dedicated Research Personnel, and other individuals involved in the success of the course. Those presenting the lectures may be Professional Lecturers. Many MOOCS don't have a hands-on, face-to-face, component but imagine if students could go to a learning lab where they could get help from a Professional Trainer or Tutor? Imagine trainers or tutors that are dedicated full-time to the study and application of modern learning theory and they use that knowledge, in combination with course analytics, to help students overcome problems.

Unbundling is very much in line with the idea of the flipped classroom. Getting things like lectures, assessment, and curriculum design "out of the way" allows the teacher to maximize face-to-face time with students and take on the role of the Professional Trainer or Tutor. In the most basic sense, teachers can now actually teach.

I don't think my ideas reduce the number of people needed to facilitate the teaching process. I think the unbundled teaching model would allow today's educators to focus on the aspects of teaching that they are most interested in and, most importantly, best at performing. I also think that an institution adopting this model would position itself well for the future and be agile enough to adapt to the inevitable future disruptions that will occur in the field of education.

How does all of this tie back to the original point of making it easier for more people to enter the field of education? If the process of teaching is unbundled we no longer need to educate, and certify, super teachers. Each piece of the unbundled teaching process is its own speciality and each piece could still be certified. It's more likely that somebody looking to transition from another career into teaching may already possess a number of the skills required for one of these speciality areas. Their background may mean that they do not require much, if any, additional education to enter that position. Those that wish to persue the position of Professional Tutor or Trainer may still require something similar to today's student teaching process but the unbundling of the teaching responsibilities would free these individuals to focus solely on this specific skill, thus shortening the time to their certification.


My sabbatical is coming to a close and by the middle of next week I will be back to teaching. I've had a lot of time to reflect on the "professional me" over the past few months and I came up with the following guidelines as a reminder of how I want to act at work.

  • Say no! Don't volunteer! Interesting things will find me when the time is right. My focus should be on teaching.
  • Don't reply to emails. If I must reply, keep the response as short as possible.
  • Stay quiet in meetings and only speak if I have something of extremely high value to add to the conversation.
  • Be relaxed.
  • Write code every day.
  • Keep a clean office and rarely work in it. Work at different places around campus, home, Indy Hall, Skylight Coworking, or anywhere that leads to more productivity.

I have a tendacy to get over-involved at work and bring a high level of stress upon myself due to having too much on my plate. When I'm stressed and short for time my teaching suffers as does my ability to continually grow my skills as a coder. Also, the more relaxed I am the more I tend to play music and write songs.

I really want to try and stay focused this semester. Let's see how it goes.

"The numbers speak for themselves."

Ozarks Technical Community College is naming names in a marketing campaign that touts how its tuition stacks up against for-profits.

A TV commercial the college unveiled last week compares the $3,300 annual cost of tuition, fees, books and supplies at Ozarks to $32,000 at Bryan College, a small Christian for-profit, $18,000 at ITT Tech and roughly $14,000 at Everest College and Vatterott College.

I understand why a community college might choose to not advertise in this manner but I am surprised it took this long for one to give it a try.

(via Inside Higher Ed)

Ozarks Technical Community College Home Page Redesign

Ozarks Technical Community College recently redesigned their home page based on statistical data collected from visitors. According to Inside Higher Ed, the school noticed that the majority of visitors were using search to navigate the site. The school simplified their home page and moved the search box to be front and center in the site design based on this data.

I like that Ozarks is willing to take a risk. Too many college web sites fall into the trap depicted in this XKCD cartoon. I also like that they borrowed heavily from Google’s site design. With that said, after visiting the Ozarks site, I wish that the home page was even simpler and that this philosophy went deeper than just this one page. From my outside perspective, I have a few minor pieces of constructive criticism.

The Ozarks home page is still cluttered across the bottom with social media links.[1] The menu across the top of the site duplicates a number of the social media links at the bottom of the page and includes a link called “Start Here.” This link is redundant. The large search box, by nature of its placement on the page, tells the user that they should start there. Based on the page it links to, the “Start Here” link should probably be titled “New Students.” Clicking on any link in the top menu bar takes you to a pretty standard CMS-looking college web site. I really think the entire site should adopt a sparse design with lots of white space to match the new home page. You can get an idea of what I mean if you view any of these pages using Safari’s Reader option or a tool like the Instapaper Text Bookmarklet.

While I don’t think the Ozarks redesign is perfect I think it is moving in the right direction and I applaud them for trying something new. I would like to see more schools bringing innovative ideas to their site design.[2] Designing and architecting a college web site is hard work.

(via Inside Higher Ed)

  1. I realize that this bottom menu can be minimized but how many users will notice this? In Safari, on my computer, the bottom toolbar was maximized by default.  ↩

  2. I would love to see a college or department make their home page a blank wiki and let the internal and external constituents build the site. The school could maintain some level of editing and publishing authority. I’m curious to see if this would work. A college web site exists to serve a community, let the community build it.  ↩


As of Tuesday, August 28th I am officially on sabbatical. I have been granted an opportunity by my employer to take leave from my regular teaching duties and pursue my academic interests. It currently feels a bit strange to have this level of freedom but I definitely need this chance to recharge both my technical skills and my spirit.

Jason Fried's recent opinion piece in the New York Times "Be More Productive. Take Time Off." couldn't have been better timed. It has helped give me the motivation to make the most out of every hour I have over the next few months.

What will I be doing?

Over the next several months my plan is to write a lot of code, meet a lot of new people, and do a lot of cool stuff. Some projects include:

  • Write open source iOS and Android apps for the College's student run radio station. This project is less about coding and more about working through internal institutional process to get a faculty developed mobile app approved and published. This project also gives me an opportunity to learn to build Android apps. I'm going to release the source on Github so other streaming radio station can use it and expand on it.
  • Learn modern web development with a focus on Javascript, Node.js, and popular .js front-end libraries. I have an idea for an ed-tech company and building a prototype of the core service will help to focus my web development studies. I also want to dive into topics such as OAuth and NoSQL.
  • Finish building out some video game prototypes I have half-finished. I would like to get at least one of them finished and released by the end of my sabbatical but I think Summer 2013 is more practical.
  • Attend a number of meet-ups in Philadelphia. It's been a long time since I attended a Philly IGDA meeting and I really want to spend more time with the Philly CocoaHeads. I also have plans to work out of Indy Hall when I can so I can tap into the energy of the local tech community.
  • Post all of my courses to Github so they are open and available to anybody that wants to take them or build on them. My college currently uses Blackboard for course management and I would like to explore using Github as a CMS in at least one of my higher-level programming courses.
  • Blog regularly. My plan is to post several commented links per day and produce at least one longer written piece per week.
  • Podcast irregularly. I have done a number of video lectures that are posted to iTunes University and I have received some pretty good feedback on them. I would like to create a regular podcast that covers certain topics of interest to me each week. I really don't know if the topics will be educational, programming related, or just plain entertainment. I need to figure this out.
  • Get comfortable using semicolons in my writing; they scare me.
  • Go to the gym and take bike rides. I'm seriously out of shape.
  • Write songs, play guitar, maybe record a short album.
  • Figure out ways for me to give back to the community and start helping out the best that I can.

That's A Lot of Stuff

I always want to do more than I have time to do, that's a major character flaw of mine. In this case I'm purposely setting the bar very high. It's time to make some changes in my life and I've been given an opportunity that most people don't get to enact those changes. I have a lot of stuff I want to do and now is the time to JFDI.

"An Increasingly Ordinary Affair"

Ian Bogost comments on modern academic life:

Related and even more under-discussed, a fact missed by recent austerity and efficiency arguments in higher education hell-bent on measuring work by time spent in the classroom: the professoriate is increasingly doing operational work for which they have no training nor competence.

I'm living proof of this academic version of the Peter Principle.