Questioning the Socratic Method and Academic Integrity

SocratesAfter I recently read an article on, I started wondering about the state of the Socratic method in American classrooms. The article chronicles the case of Professor Steven Maranville at Utah Valley University. He teaches a capstone business course and his style is to ask questions even if students don't volunteer to answer.

It seems that students complained about that (and pedagogical choices) and that those complaints contributed to the university denying him tenure.

I won't attempt to judge his employment status or his classroom teaching, but the article points to other cases where the power of student evaluations and opinions on faculty rehiring was significant. Professors at Louisiana State University and  at Norfolk State University are noted.

Maranville's style of pedadgogy is described as Socratic, "engaged learning" in which he "pushed for students to go beyond lectures" and created teams for assignments outside class. I don't hear anything very radical in any of that. If done well, it sounds quite admirable.

The Socratic Method as a style of teaching is named after the classical Greek philosopher Socrates who used this method of inquiry. It is covered in chapter one of the textbook I use in my critical thinking course, and I can't really imagine teaching a class face-to-face or online without using some form of this questioning technique.

This kind of inquiry and debate between individuals is popular in law schools and probably used more in the humanities and the social sciences. Using opposing viewpoints and asking and answering questions stimulates critical thinking and often illuminate ideas.

It is a dialectical method, and so it can often generate oppositional discussion and the defense of one point of view is up against the defense of another. I suppose that opposition can, if the discussion lacks discipline, lead to out and out arguing.

Maybe the Socratic method seems negative because it uses a method of hypothesis elimination. The stronger hypotheses are found by identifying and eliminating those that lead to contradictions or that cannot be defended.

As the article points out, one advantage of this kind of teaching is that it challenges students "to learn how to think on their feet." In general, I find that students at the undergraduate and graduate level don't like that challenge, especially if they have been not been asked to do it in other classes.

I also have read a number of online posts recently about an article headlined "NYU Prof Vows Never to Probe Cheating Again—and Faces a Backlash."  It wasn't Socratic teaching that got the NYU prof in trouble. It was his attempt to be more aggressive about cheating and plagiarism in his introductory information technology class.

Perhaps feeling safer because he had tenure, he decided to use the Blackboard course-management system and Turnitin's plagiarism-detection software together for the first time. Those integrated software packages allows assignments that are submitted to be automatically checked for matches to materials online.

He found that plagiarism was "pervasive" and 22 of the 108 students admitted cheating by the end of the semester.

The connections to the earlier Socratic case? Students, especially those in certain majors, are simply not asked to do much writing. (It is one of the reasons the Writing Initiative at PCCC that I direct was launched.) And faculty in those disciplines often feel unprepared to evaluate writing "as writing" as opposed to grading based on subject matter content. Students have not been asked to do this kind of writing, and instructors are not prepared or unwilling to "police" writing for plagiarism.

Introduce some powerful software that detects it automatically, even on papers or students that you would not have suspected, and an ugly truth is revealed.

Of course, the other connection in these two cases is that the teachers paid for their actions with bad student reviews. Professor Ipeirotis dropped to a below-average score of 5.3 (of 7.0) from his usual 6.0 to 6.5. He claims that "The Dean’s office and my chair ‘expressed their appreciation’ for me chasing such cases (in December), but six months later, when I received my annual evaluation, my yearly salary increase was the lowest ever, and significantly lower than inflation, as my teaching evaluations took a hit this year."

As anyone who has pursued an academic integrity case at a college with the administration probably discovered, it can take up many hours away from your actual teaching or research. Sadly, when he posted on a blog that he had decided to no longer pursue cheating instances, that too was met with a backlash.

Lesson learned? Well, I completely agree with what he says: "Rather than police plagiarism,
professors should design assignments that cannot be plagiarized."  I am actually presenting tomorrow at a writing across the curriculum faculty roundtable at PCCC on just that topic. I hope to get a positive response from faculty, and will report back here soon.

This is a cross-posting from the Writing Initiative blog at PCCC.


Dear Wavers

I got a "Dear Wavers" email from Google last week. It's a "Dear John" letter following up on their announcement from last year that they Google Wave would no longer be developed as a separate product.

Though some people were using the Wave product and were sad to see the experiment end, it never caught on in any big way, especially in education. Google originally said they would maintain the site at least through to the end of 2010, so they did give it an extra year. But it will be sunseting and "as of January 31, 2012, all waves will be read-only, and the Wave service will be turned off on April 30,2012."

Users should export individual waves using the existing PDF export feature before April 30, 2012. (see their help center)

Google also suggests some open source projects to try. Apache Wave is one of those. Another project called Walkaround includes an experimental feature that lets you import all your Waves from Google (but grab them before April 30).

OpenCourseWare And OER After A Decade

The OCW Consortium celebrated 10 years of OpenCourseWare (OCW). If you're not familiar with the movement, it is focused mostly on making university-level content freely and openly available online. The faculty at MIT kicked it off when they agreed to put materials from all 2,000 of the university’s courses on the Web.

MIT OpenCourseWare helped launch this movement and that is very important. But much of what is online is content that is "Web 1.0.” Syllabi, exercises, quizzes and the occasional presentation and video are the typical resources.

Resources that are not from academia, such as Khan Academy and Wikipedia, are also in the spirit of open educational resources (OER).

Here are some OER or OCW resources that you should investigate if you haven't already.

  1. P2PU The Peer 2 Peer University - grassroots open education project with volunteers facilitating courses where learners are in charge. Courses use open content and the open social web and are a great model of lifelong learning.

  2. OpenStudy is a social learning network - independent learners and traditional students meet in a massively-multiplayer study group. It supports study groups and includes groups that focus on MIT OCW courses.

  3. NITXY a learning management platform that supports open education resources.

  4. iUniv a Japanese startup building web and mobile apps, using social video and audio that can be shared to Twitter, Facebook, and Evernote et al.

  5. OCWSearch is a search engine dedicated to finding OCW content - it seems to have stalled somewhat but it does index ten universities’ OCW content, including
    MIT, Notre Dame, and The Open University UK.

  6. Smarthistory a free and open multimedia website -  it might replace the somewhat obsolete traditional art history textbook.

  7. CK-12 Foundation’s Flexbook platform provides free, collaboratively-built and openly-licensed digital textbooks for K-12.

  8. Flat World Knowledge interesting college textbook publisher model where books are published under an open license - customize the books, edit, add to, mix-up, use as-is, access the books online for free or can pay for print-on-demand and audiobook versions.

  9. Connextions is one of several large repositories of educational content - 17,000+ openly licensed learning modules

  10. can lead you to the other repositories and help you network with other like-minded educators

Are Your Students Buying The Textbook?

As I have written before, as the cost of textbooks continues to rise, more and more college students are choosing not to buy them. Almost half of my class this semester has no textbook. They choose to either borrow a copy from a classmate or the library, or just rely on whatever parts of the book I cover in class (which is probably about 30%).

I would prefer to use a free and open textbook, but I haven't found one for that particular course (Critical Thinking).

Some scary stats:

According to, 7 out of 10 undergraduates surveyed at 13 college campuses said they had not purchased one or more textbooks because the cost was too high when surveyed by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.

The Government Accountability Office has estimated that textbooks cost a quarter the average tuition for state universities and three-fourths the average tuition at community colleges.

PIRG analysis also found the price of textbooks has risen 22% over the past four years, which is a much faster rate than overall inflation.

Rising prices come as student debt has also soared to record levels. In fact, that debt exceeds the total credit card debt in 2010.

Google Plus + Apps

I posted last about Google Plus possibilities and my final thought was that when Plus connects to all the other Google Apps, there might be more push to use it in schools. Today I read that Google has launched Google+ for Google Apps. (Google+ accounts could only be activated with a Gmail address before.)

The article says that already a few dozen Google Apps for Education universities have enabled Google+ for their students, faculty, and staff.

As I thought, using Google+ hangouts to meet classes in multiple locations via virtual meetings is a feature that should be attractive. It's not that this couldn't already be done using existing services, but most of those are for a fee.

Along with Apps integration, Google also added 3 new features: what's hot, ripples, and creative kit, for Google+. What's hot, accessible at the end of new posts in a user's stream or in their list of circles, allows users to see posts about topics trending on the network. Ripples gives users the ability to see how posts spread publicly throughout the network. Creative kit is a tool for editing images uploaded to Google+.