Category Archives: Centre College

“Online learning” and higher education

A nation-wide conversation is currently taking place about the efficacy and value of “online learning” and “MOOCs” in higher education, a conversation that permeates to us here at Centre College where we value personal, “transformative” educational experiences. There are lots of people who know a lot more about these topics than myself, so I’m not going to try to “pick a side” one way or another or to offer a brilliant new perspective on the issue. I’m merely going to describe a recent experience with online learning.

I’ve spent the last several months participating in an online course offered by “Open Yale Courses.” I picked a class based on a topic I was interested in and wanted to know more about. I downloaded 24 separate MP3 files, each an hour long, that contained recordings of the class lectures given by the professor from the first day of class to the end. I did not do any of the assigned readings and I certainly didn’t bother doing any of the assignments. But over the course of several months I listened to the recorded lectures on my MP3 player while out jogging in the mornings.

On balance, I found it to be a positive experience. The lectures were interesting and kept my attention. The professor presented the material in an engaging way that challenged how I thought about the topic. Some of the things that I learned sparked me to go online and search out additional information. I learned about the approaches and methodologies of an academic discipline different from my own. 

On the other hand, I didn’t have a thorough experience with the subject. I didn’t learn the material as well as I would have if I had been required to take an exam on the subject. The professor often cited material from the readings (that I hadn’t done) so I didn’t follow the details of the lecture as well as I could have. And sometimes it was boring so I skipped to the next topic. If pressed, I probably could regurgitate maybe 10%-20% of the actual “pieces of knowledge” that the professor presented throughout those 24 lectures. 

I can also say, however, that I have a more comprehensive understanding of the subject now. While I don’t recall 100% of the facts and pieces of evidence presented, I feel like I have a good handle on the major paradigms and the overall “narrative” and key “take away” points of the class. Listening to the lectures over a series of weeks has definitely changed my perspective on the subject matter and the way I interact with it. It challenged some of my very strongly-held assumptions about how the world works. And I know where to go if I want to learn more about the topic and I will understand it better given that I can now think within the “paradigms” of the scholarly approach of the topic. Given all that, I think it’s fair to say that I experienced a “transformative” learning experience.

I can compare that experience to another that I had while an undergraduate student. I took an online course that countered toward one of my minors. It was a topic I was interested in and so I was motivated to learn the material. The course, however, was perhaps one of the absolute worst I have ever taken, speaking from a pedagogical perspective. The method of delivery was ineffective and the assessment tools were, at best, a joke. I learned very little and felt that it was a complete waste of my time and inefficient use of resources. 

So from my very limited experience (N=2), I can offer the following observation: Some online learning experiences are good and others aren’t. It’s not that different from in-class experiences. Some professors are better than others. Therefore, we shouldn’t automatically dismiss the usefulness of an educational experience simply because it’s presented electronically. 

Rep. Guthrie’s take on Congressional dysfunction

As I reported in my last post, U.S. Congressman Brett Guthrie (R-KY2) visited my U.S. Congress class here at Centre College on Friday afternoon. Rep. Guthrie spoke to my students for about fifteen minutes and then fielded questions for the remainder of the hour. 

Rep. Guthrie began by addressing a topic that he said tends to be on everyone’s mind when he meets with constituents: “why can’t Congress get anything done?” He gave a short and concise answer: there aren’t a lot of cross-party mutual interests that form the foundation of bipartisan solutions. He explained that a few generations ago, there were several liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats, and that with a few exceptions, they’re all gone now. So now there are no conservative Democrats for the Republicans to reach out to, and conversely, no liberal Republicans for the Democrats to reach out to. Hence a great deal of partisanship and inability to compromise and find common ground.

What impressed me most about this is that this is the same basic answer agreed upon by most academics and political scientists. It’s often the case that academics spend their time combating “conventional wisdom” popularized by both politicians and the media. In this instance, Congressman Guthrie’s answer was right on the mark in line with what I teach my students.

How should we fix the problem? He offered: “We haven’t figured that out yet.” It was an honest answer, which I appreciated. The most effective way of “fixing” it immediately would require substantially shifting the ideological constituencies that make up today’s partisan coalitions, and then having them elect representatives accordingly. That’s not something that’s going to happen any time soon.

I very much appreciate Rep. Guthrie visiting my students and we look forward to future visits here on Centre’s campus.

The story behind Paul Ryan’s water in the 2012 VP debate

My GOV 334 U.S. Congress class was privileged to receive a visit from Congressman Brett Guthrie this afternoon, who now represents Boyle County in Kentucky’s 2nd congressional district. Rep. Guthrie was an excellent guest and shared several insights about how Congress works from an “insider” perspective.

One interesting tidbit he shared was the story behind why Paul Ryan took so many sips of water during the 2012 vice presidential debate here at Centre College a few months ago. This was famously lampooned in the Saturday Night Live skit that came out later that weekend.

It’s no secret that Paul Ryan is an exercise enthusiast and he drinks a lot of water every day. This necessitates several trips to the “facilities.” According to Congressman Guthrie, on the day of the debate, Congressman Ryan’s staffers would not let him drink any water after 2:00 P.M. so that he would have no need to excuse himself in the middle of a national debate. Apparently, when the debate finally started at 9:00 P.M., Congressman Ryan had had nothing to drink for seven hours. So when he was presented with a glass of water during the debate, he took advantage of it!

My fall 2012 semester, by the numbers

  • 89 students between 3 different courses
  • 2 new course preps = 55 separate lesson preps
  • 521 assignments graded, including 178 exams and 208 essays/papers
  • About 100 hours in the classroom
  • 50+ regular office hours (who knows how many additional unscheduled visits!)
  • 53 blog posts (now 54)
  • 1 Vice-Presidential debate (with 20+ media interviews)
  • 1 county exit polling project (with 1,461 respondents!)
  • 1 internship supervision
  • 2 independent studies directed
  • 2 search committees (100+ applications read, about 15 phone interviews conducted, and 3 on-campus interviews so far)
  • 2 substantial committee report to the Dean produced (between 5 committee meetings)

It was a fun and exciting semester… but I’m ready for a break!

My students give America’s electoral system a C+

This semester at Centre College I taught a course entitled “Parties, Campaigns, and Elections.” We covered a wide range of topics, from the organization of political parties, campaign finance laws, campaign strategies, presidential debates, the elections of 2008, 2010, and 2012, congressional and local campaigns, and things like judicial elections and direct democracy.

For the last day of class, we evaluated the American electoral system against some fundamental democratic standards: (taken from Table 13.1 and Chapter 13 of Campaigns and Elections by John Sides, et al. 2012)

  • Free choice: 1) a choice between two candidates, 2) no coercion of citizens
  • Equality: 1) all votes counted equally, 2) all candidates be able to disseminate information equally
  • Deliberation: 1) citizens have access to information from diverse sources, must be opportunities to deliberate

I asked my students to give America’s electoral system (at the national, state, and local levels) a letter grade based on how well it matches up against the criteria outlined above. Here is the distribution:

  • A: zero
  • A-: zero
  • B+: zero
  • B: 4
  • B-: 12
  • C+: 6
  • C: 2
  • C-: 3
  • D: zero
  • F: zero

The average was a high C+. While we seem to do a fair-to-good job of meeting those standards for presidential elections, several students noted the Electoral College (which gives citizens of smaller states and swing states a disproportionate influence in the outcome of elections) as the key barrier to a more democratic system. Also, they noted that many of these ideals are not being met at the state and local levels, where many seats often go uncontested and information about candidates is lacking.

While the American political systems is certainly more democratic than that found in many places in the world, my students came away with the conclusion that there is still much that can be improved before we can confidently match the ideal norms of representative democracy.

WEKU interview and post-debate analysis links

My summary Huffington Post article on the vice presidential debate at Centre College:

The podcast of my Thursday WEKU interview with NPR’s Don Gonyea, BBC’s Bill Simon, and McClatchy’s Lesley Clark is available here:

Downloadable MP3 file:




My reactions to the 2012 vice presidential debate: a quick summary

NOTE: An updated and revised version of this post is now available at Huffington Post:

Here is a summary of my thoughts, comments, and reactions to the 2012 vice presidential debate, held here at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky on October 11, 2012, presented in no particular order:

“Who won the debate?”

I think both candidates did a pretty good job of doing what they needed to do in this debate. Joe Biden of course had to come out swinging and be on the attack. Democrats were widely disappointed in President Obama’s performance last week and Biden needed to do everything that Obama did NOT do last week. This included being aggressive, direct, confrontational, and challenging. He needed to give demoralized Democrats a reason to stay energized. I think he accomplished this goal. Of course, it’s a fine line between being assertive and coming off as a bully. I don’t know that he definitively crossed the line, but he certainly straddled it the entire evening.

For Paul Ryan, he essentially need to show that he was confident and able to hold his own on the national stage. He needed to show that he could talk about policies other than Medicare. In all of these things, I think he did about as well as could be expected. He started off a little shaky in the first ten minutes or so, but then found his footing and did very well the rest of the evening.

Thus, I score this debate more or less a toss-up. Democrats will likely say that Biden won and Republicans will say that Ryan won. They both got done what they needed to get done.

“What effect will this have on the election?”

Historically, vice presidential debates have had a smaller effect on the ultimate outcome than the presidential debates. That being said, I don’t think this debate will be completely irrelevant. I think that the positive momentum for Romney-Ryan will be slowed somewhat and that Democrats will be a bit more energized. (I also think that most Democrats in America tonight are wishing that Joe Biden would be the one to handle the last two debates against Mitt Romney!) I think that the campaign narrative will even out a little bit more going the next debate next Tuesday evening. And the campaign narrative is what has been shown to affect public opinion moreso than actual candidate performances.

“Is there anything else you’d like to share?”

Yes! I’m glad you asked. First, I think this debate was a bit too “wonky.” Not that it’s necessarily a bad thing to focus so much on numbers and statistics and all that. BUT 95% of the people watching this debate (many of which are very politically sophisticated individuals) simply don’t have the specialized knowledge base necessary to critically evaluate the accuracy or merit of many of the arguments and evidences presented by the two candidates. In this, I think that both candidates could have done a better job of making their case in a way that was more accessible to American voters. That being said, there is some upside to showing voters that you know what you’re talking about and that you have a wealth of information to draw upon.

Second, I think the big winner in this debate was the moderator Martha Raddatz. She was firm and did a great job of pushing the candidates and holding their feet to the fire. And she asked my question.