Concept: Course Design Team

If I could reform the way college is done, I’d mandate team teaching. Not, however, by putting a couple of professors together in a class and telling them to get after it. There’s nothing terribly wrong with that. In fact I think it is a good way, in our traditional learning model, to encourage INTEGRATION. I’m not sure that it does much to create great learning experiences though.

I hear that team-taught courses are sometimes fun to watch, as faculty members compete with one another to demonstrate they are smarter, wittier, or more reasonable than their partner. I also hear that they are sometimes confusing for students, often having no explicit outcomes but seemingly many unstated ones in the mind of each professor and uneven approaches to the evaluation of student learning.  I hear that faculty often enjoy working together…they feel like they get to have an engaging conversation in the classroom and they learn a lot from interacting with their colleague.  I hear that they get frustrated with course management, student engagement, and the perception that their students are learning less than expected (perhaps because the faculty are learning so much more).

Nope, that’s not the teaching team I’m looking for (at least today). Instead, I’m interested in a team that consists of a cognitive psychologist, a game designer, a screen writer, a content expert, a web technician, a videographer, an assessor, and a professor who specializes in the facilitative learning.

Together, teams of folks with these skills work to create high quality content that

  • educates effectively (cognitive psychologist and content specialist),
  • captures and holds student interest and engagement (game developer, web tech, screen writer, and videographer),
  • supports, encourages and coaches students through the course by offering sage advice and tutoring (professor-facilitator), and
  • evaluates student learning and course effectiveness in a way that provides both positive feedback for improvement (assessor).

I’m envisioning creative collaborations among these folks that design courses that are effective in on-campus and online courses alike.  The content expert and screen play writer work to create a compelling semester long story capable of leading students down the twisting and intricate paths of the course.  The cognitive psychologist, game developer, and assessor work to design engaging activities that encourage students to engage the content, practice the sought after skills that lead to the creation of meaningful knowledge and create evidence of that achievement.  The screenplay writer, videographer, and content specialist produce the audio, video and other media necessary to capture and engage student attention and convey the knowledge necessary to do the work.  The  web technician, assessor and professor-facilitator work out the practical structure of the course — how the students get at the material, instructions, etc, where they will publicly engage with one another over the course content (discussion forums, Youtube posts, Google+, etc), where and when they will engage the demonstration challenges (tests), and how the students will be assessed and feedback given.

I would love to see that team at work, to be part of that creative process.  The closest thing that I’ve seen to such a thing is Urgent Evoke, designed and facilitated with the help of Jane McGonigal, the World Bank Institute sponsored game promoting world-changing social entrepreneurship.  I’m interested in experimenting specifically with Evoke next fall when I teach World Geography, if it’s still available.  In a way, I’m calling for mashing up the likes of Urgent Evoke, Kahn Academy, Google+, Dreamworks and TED into a powerful world-changing educational force.

Here’s a question for you: Have you seen similar kinds of things?  Where?


Gaming and Learning: An Interview with “Sims” creator

Will Wright, creator of “The Sims” and “Sim City” video games, suggested in a recent interview that video games can help inspire students to learn more, but that they do this best by approaching lessons with abstraction and subtlety.  By focusing on what he calls “strategic thinking,” which we might call “critical thinking” and providing less overtly didactic cases, students learn skills that can lead to later intuitive jumps to apply the logic of the game to real life scenarios.  Supporting the playful and subtle game lesson with links to factual resources (Want to know more about these kinds of things? Go to…) can provide immediate positive feedback to curiosity.

My sense of what he’s suggesting is that faculty can stimulate the desire for deeper learning by encouraging students to play with subtle simulations.  An application of Wright’s ideas could be for a teacher to create simplified case studies (reduced the level of complexity) based on the concept(s) that students should learn. Students are then provided with the opportunity to play around with adjusting the scenarios, taking different points of view, and trying to determine how things would work out if different decisions were made.  This can work out nicely in the exploration of concepts and theories that suggest physical consequences generated in response to particular behaviors.  Which ones don’t?

I think that designing such these kinds of games to support learning theories and concepts might be useful to theorists as well.  To have to work through the process of laying out the rules and their implications provides a great way to quickly test the logic and strength of a particular theory against the universe of possible and plausible actions the players might want to take.  Having students work through this process, to “wargame” scenarios related to particular concepts provides students with opportunities to learn how to think critically, solve problems, and learn actively. Theorists may benefit by having multiple brains work to test the concept using outside the box ways of thinking and with less ego-involvement and politcs on the part of both the investigator and reviewers than may be true of later formal peer review processes.

Overheard…need more real world applications!

Standing in the cafeteria line today, I couldn’t help but overhear the two students behind me discussing the test in some unidentifiable class. One said, “I wish they would ban those simulations from the test, I aced everything else, but couldn’t do the simulation part and so I got a 76.”

I turned around and said something to the effect of “But don’t the simulations demonstrate that you can actually apply what you’ve learned?”

He said, “Yeah, but I knew all the vocabulary, that shows that I learned the material.”

I responded with, “But isn’t that like knowing all the terminology about playing tennis. Just because you know the terms doesn’t mean you can actually play the game when you get on the court, does it?”

He and his friend gave me that, “Quit bothering us, you are an idiot” look.

I think that what I really overheard today was a student saying, “If you really want me to learn something, you’ll have to test more than just the vocabulary.  You have to test whether or not I can do something with it…and I’ll resent it if you do.”

It reminded me, I must design more application exercises, preferably real life kinds of simulationthat that utilize the knowledge I ask students to glean…if I can figure out how to. This little snippet of converation really reinforced for me the notion that educational best practices require intentional focus on active learning, critical thinking and problem solving. This is challenging for everyone at first, but useful and consistent with the real aim of 21st century education.

Wiki-gating Update

I’ve been using the wikigation assignment in two different classes…American West, which is an upper division history class, and World Civ, which is a lower division general education class. I have observed some interesting things.

Thing 1: Students do read the assigned wikipedia pages in preparation for in-class discussions. One student wrote in his learning log:

I really am enjoying the way this class is set up. It’s a really fun and interesting way to learn. These wiki hunts really make you think and you have to pick and choose what you believe is most important within the information then share that information with your group and once you hear what everyone else got out of the hunt you have learned the topic without a 60 minute lecture.

Thing 2: The critical thinking questions designed to help guide student reading toward critical thinking might get in the way of content acquisition. For instance a student wrote in her learning log:

This week, i think i got a hang of the WIKI hunts better and really found those helpful. i focused more on what the articles were saying and what i got from them. rather than on answering those questions we were given to help us. i think some of those questions confused me, therefore it made it harder for me to understand and focus on what i was reading.

This is something to grapple with in light of the intended outcomes for the assignment.  What do I really want the assignment to do…provide an opportunity for students to think critically think or to gather information with which they will later have an opportunity to process (as in during the class discussion).  I’m inclined at this point to think that it should be the latter.  I think this was a case of not clearly thinking through the process necessary to achieve the outcome.

Thing 3: Some students are able to see that Wikipedia is a very uneven source that suffers from credibility issues:

The one thing that I would say that is bad or not effective is the second wikipedia hunt for this week.  The Israel and Judah project is a little too much information and had too much contraversy to be discussed without a professor present to give some feedback.  I would also think that wikipedia is not the source to go to to learn about it either.

Another wrote

Finally, a few more comments about Wikipedia. I still really do not care for it. I never feel prepared after having read the article, even after looking at the history and some of the links. For the Homestead Act which we will talk about on Monday, I went to other sources as well, and I feel like a have a much better grasp. The thing about most Wikipedia articles is that there is often little background information. The article is not contextualized. However, that is what the links are supposed to be for. But those links have no background either, and it’s just a vicious cycle. I mean, I can get the basic information, but I can’t really find out what I deem to be the really important stuff.

This was one of my upper division students.  I encouraged her previously to get in and edit the entry if she found a problem…to be part of the solution rather than just railing against the machine.  She then related:

I did start editing Wikipedia this last week though. I must say it become rather addictive. Once you decide to correct one grammar mistake, it is amazing how many more one can find. I actually ending up completely re-wording most of one article. There was a nice sense of satisfaction, but I wonder how the personal who wrote it originally felt.

She continued this a week later…

Finally, I have to say that making my first major edit to Wikipedia this week has been very rewarding. The article about the Lincoln County War truly was awful when I read it. It made absolutely no sense and, after I looked up information from some more reliable sources, I realized that the article provided no sense at all of the actual story. I’m pretty sure I’ve read freshman fine arts papers that were better than this article. (And that’s really saying something, because those papers are excruciating.) Anyway, the article is still not great. It doesn’t have any flow, because I haven’t yet made any changes to the end of the article. I couldn’t find the information I needed to do some fact checking. Several people on the discussion page had pointed it out. I’m debating if I should bother correcting the grammar there, or just wait until I get a certain book in on inter-library loan to check the facts. And the opening section about the beginning of the Lincoln County War is much too long, but I haven’t yet figured out how to create a new section within the article. There are a lot of buttons and controls that one can press and I haven’t quite figured them all out yet. But I just couldn’t help feeling a perhaps inordinate amount of satisfaction when my fellow class members starting talking about our topic for the in day in the terms that I had chosen to describe it. I had taken something that was confusing and made it understandable… then of course the evil part of my nature rather wondered if I shouldn’t have left it like it was and made those lazy boys figure it out for themselves. But overall it was a nice experience to not just complain about “whoever wrote the article” and then move on.

Something tells me this assignment has real potential.  Here we see the power of wikipedia’s weaknesses to inspire and thus, like the Dao, reveal its strength.

Course Workload: What’s Reasonable?

What is normal (not excessive, reasonable to expect) in a General Education class?

In a General Education course, properly calibrated for a group of student’s level of ability, it would be normal for faculty to expect students to utilize and demonstrate critical thinking and effective communication skills in order to meet the minimum acceptable standard for completing an assignment or a course.

It would be normal, in a properly calibrated course, for students to engage in the work of learning along the following lines:

  • Students should understand that it is normal to be working together in class, on topic, for the number of hours equal to the number of credit hours assigned to the course.  In addition, students should expect to do about 2-3 hours of work outside of class for every hour students are in class together. Taking those together, it would be normal, in a three (3) credit course, for a student to spend 9 hours a week engaged in doing the work necessary to achieve the learning outcomes of the course.
  • For a course with a lab, it would be normal to spend 2-3 additional hours engaged in solving the weekly lab problem.
  • When students are in engaged in courses where the delivery system is not organized by the standard semester, it would be normal to expect the work load for the course to require that the student engage in learning activities for 40-50 hours over the instructional term for each credit hour assigned to the course (class + preparation and demonstration time). (For a 3 credit class, it would be normal for students to spend 120-150 hours engaged in class related work over the term).

While there are a wide range of learning activities and a range of tempos by which students complete those activities,

  • It would be normal to expect students to read critically 10-15 pages (2500-4000 words) in an hour.
  • It would be normal to expect students to compose 300-700 words of reflective writing to standard in an hour.
  • It would be normal to expect students to research and compose to standard a research paper (essay with sources) at a rate of 100 words per hour.
  • It would be normal to expect students to utilize 1-2 sources per page in a research paper. For those who like algebra, the equation might look like this: Number of Pages(Number of Sources X 2)= Normal.
  • It would be normal for students to spend 50-75% of the time together in class engaged  in active learning exercises that require them to collect and aggregate information (normally acquired outside of class) from one another and analyze it, either individually or collectively, in order to create knowledge for themselves.

Creating a common understanding among both faculty and students about what a reasonable workload is for a class has several advantages.

  • Faculty can evaluate the assignments they give and time frame in which they expect them to be done against some of the normal times it might take to complete the assignment.
  • If faculty are willing to commit to a shared set of criteria like these, will live by them when making assignments, and will communicate these expectations to students as the discuss assignments, it may have the effect of upgrading the overall educational culture of an institution. Some expect too little from their students and others too much. Evening that out might be beneficial for everyone.
  • Increasing workload from low levels to reasonable ones may increase student engagement in learning, but increasing workload beyond reasonable leads to diminishing returns in regard to student engagement and thus learning. If students trust faculty to make reasonable assignments, then perhaps students will be willing to engage the assignment.  This may be particularly true for reading in preparation for class.  I know that I have been guilty of making large reading assignments and then being frustrated that students didn’t read them.  After talking with students, I’ve come to discover that if they see 100 page a week reading assignments plus weekly writing assignments, they won’t read.  The load is too daunting.  By the standards above, I would be expecting 10 hours of reading and a couple of hours of writing a week in addition to class time.  That’s probably enough over the top to decrease student engagement in the course…exactly the opposite of what I want to do.

All of this is the fruit of putting together things I’ve heard over the course of my teaching career and then thinking though nuts and bolts and implications.  I think it would be great for folks to collect some real data in order to firm up the data on how much one can read and write in an hour in order to make the “reasonable” expectations even more reasonable by conforming them to findings drawn from a larger data set.

Wikigate: A Wikipedia-Based Learning Activity

Wiki-gate: (v) an activity by which students begin reading a Wikipedia article, identifying and recording relevant information from the article and the begin following wordlinks or other links, repeating the activity, in an effort to aggregate information into a network of information.

Why? Students on campuses where laptops are prevalent often aren’t focused on the task at hand in class but instead distracted by social networking, youtube, etc. Faculty complain and students admit that they don’t read textbooks. Thus, finding a way to leverage student computer use and increase time on task should reap some learning benefits. Wikigation gives students an opportunity to use Wikipedia to aggregate information on the assigned topic.

I imagine doing this in two formats. For small classes (less than 30) assign students a topic for discussion and a starting wikipedia page. Starting at that page, they surf Wikipedia following links (paths of desire) and aggregating information they find along the way. At some point along the way, each student needs to read a discussion page in order to see some of the debate over content by page creators and maintainers.  Each student will then summarize her/his findings indicating the most interesting, useful or significant parts. These summaries will serve as the foundation for continued class discussion.

In a large class, students will share their knowledge with fellow group members. Groups will discuss individual finding and synthesize them into a report that summarizes their findings. Group oral reports can then be used either to engage the class in further discussion or as the basis for a quick mini-lecture to tie loose strands together.

As a follow-up activity, students will write a short essay synthesizing the knowledge gleaned from the topic…a learning log perhaps.