Slides and text for my presentation at #dLRN15 at Stanford University on Saturday, October 17. This is a 15-minute presentation, so the slides will advance automatically during the presentation while I read the prepared notes. Currently timing at 14:42!
Building From Where Students Are At: Developing a Course(less) Minor
Good Morning. I want to talk about some thinking we are doing for our Professional Writing Minor at UNLV. I overextended in my proposal, they accepted, so I'm going to try to cram A LOT into my 15 minutes. To stay on time, I'll read from prepared notes. Here we go!
In many departments and programs across the country, course development follows a traditional "knowing what" approach (especially in English departments). This means courses are distinguished by "how much you know," with pathways to "knowledge" approved from the top down and enforced through a series of prerequisites and program-approved gateways. In direct opposition to this traditional approach, this presentation briefly describes our long-term plans to extend even beyond a "knowing how" or "knowing why" approach to course development by creating seamless connections among courses.
Because our minor has relevance to majors across campus, and since we can't force students down a single linear path, developing the program means that course design, project design, student competencies, and our program assessment plan must account for different students with different skill sets and different experiences when they enter. We want students in a particular course to be successful, or feel confident in their learning when completing a particular project, no matter their digital experience or previous coursework. We build to them.
Our program attempts to answer a series of guiding questions (such as this one) in order to promote broader community engagement in learning networks and correlate competencies, digital assets, student activities, and program assessments. This is a tall order and requires transparency in our teaching and administrative practices.
For this reason, we are big fans of the work of our colleague at UNLV, Mary-Ann Winklemes, who is the Director of the Transparency in Teaching and Learning in Higher Education project; however, our approach varies slightly from the concluding statement in this quote attributed to her in a recent Chronicle article.
For me, to "explain" things to students often looks like my youngest son yelling at his older brothers to get them to listen and understand what he wanted. But, for the most part, they ignored him because they had their own agendas. Or else it looks like this: [Bullwinkle pulling a "rabbit" out of his hat]
As a quick aside, I have talked to Mary-Ann about her quote, and I'm quite certain that her thinking aligns much more closely to what I'm about to describe than teachers "explaining." For us, project development should empower students and offer them strategies for empowering themselves in other courses, and beyond.
We start with a basic template for all projects in our courses. We want the program input to be just the tip of the iceberg, providing a direction, a framework, and initial readings and resources to get students started toward achieving the initial project aims. This could be the Genre Revision project in our Document Design course or the Personal and Professional Leaning Network project in our Electronic Docs course.
And I use the word initial quite consciously because we expect students to take control of the projects and develop them to fit their learning goals. In all of the projects, every student contributes resources, they use and review software or apps that are relevant to a particular project and share their experiences with the rest of the class, and they define and construct deliverables that build their competencies for professional writing, as well as meet the project aims.
In order for students to do all this, I will next describe the process that we implement for all of our projects. This process is the key component for our program because it forces us to build in the time necessary for students to work, to play, to make mistakes, to share, to collaborate: to learn. We especially want to promote informal learning opportunities by giving students that time, but also giving them credit for just participating in the class, contributing whatever they can to the course's success, for just showing up.
Our project process begins with an enhanced version of a traditional writing process. That traditional model was primarily individual, primarily linear. But, for us, we want to think of our projects as cognitive process and social practice.
As cognitive process, our projects (like students' learning) are developmental and recursive. Considered developmentally, we can describe our projects as evolving through these stages, but we expect it to be recursive, not linear: learners move back and forth among the stages as they work toward submission of project deliverables.
As social practice, we want students to engage with the class, to share knowledge and ask questions, to be sensitive to their own learning needs while, at the same time, contributing to the larger ongoing conversations. This open atmosphere helps students learn about and learn how to choose and use a wide range of strategies that will aid in their critical learning and reflective practices. We want students to personalize their experience with the project, to develop from where they are at, currently, in their thinking and skill levels.
For us, this occurs most seamlessly in the planning stage and the reflecting stage, a time when students can articulate what they want to learn and how they will do it. This means our projects need to be purposeful, have meaning to the students so they engage with the work (even if it's purely for their own reasons), so they feel like they are accomplishing things, DOING something. But, as I will discuss shortly, their work should not be limited to just the deliverables, which soon would become merely artifacts for a course, rather than models for lifelong learning, participation on multiple levels in an active constructive process.
While we want students to look inward for their learning goals, we also expect outward participation, as well. At the early stages of any project, students are gathering resources for understanding concepts more fully and for completing the work. They are exploring and reviewing uses for different software or apps that will help them construct more effective deliverables. And they are beginning to draft materials for those deliverables.
These early stages help students explore and establish a context for the project, so they understand it well enough to begin to discuss how their work should be evaluated. At this point, we develop the evaluation criteria as a class. This includes an explicit understanding that part of their reflection should address the ways that they met the criteria relative to their own learning goals for the project.
Once the evaluation criteria is negotiated and agreed upon, drafts of the deliverables can be completed, for the first time. On this side of the project, student work goes through multiple drafts, with time set aside for peer review and teacher review before they submit their work for evaluation. The goal here is to model recursivity, to encourage trust in multiple perspectives, to allow for the time necessary to submit quality materials.
We talk about performing higher-order revisions and lower-order edits before they submit a deliverable for evaluation. And the deliverables are the only items evaluated. As I stated earlier, the majority of the work is participatory, a contribution to their own learning and to the learning of their classmates. As you can imagine, the key to all of this is time. We have to be patient and provide the time for students to explore, the time to experiment, the time to fail, before they make the move to final completion. And we think the final outcomes are stellar.
Of course, when it really gets messy (and fun) is when we have two or three projects occurring simultaneously in the same course, all at different stages of development.
I'm hoping that you can see in these visuals, that our template, with the help of our students, seeks to create and maintain flexible curricula and relevant assets within a networked learning environment that encourages a more collaborative approach, one that privileges informal and situated learning, and promotes ubiquitous and lifelong learning, thereby increasing learner control, learner choice, and learner independence.
By promoting an open and collaborative environment, one that encourages and rewards sharing, experimentation, personalization, we find our students are genuinely interested in helping one another. Less experienced students ask questions, more advanced students ask questions; when they set personal goals for learning, everyone looks for ways to enhance their skills and help others do the same.
Ideally, we would like our program to mirror this image, which depicts a collaborative framework for video production at the Rhode Island School of Design. As Manuel Lima points out: “Notice here that links aren’t straight lines. They were trying to create an organic and fluid treatment, evocative perhaps of the invisible chain of inspiration between associated videos.” For us, we can see our courses represented by the highlighted icons, with other icons representing associated repositories for resources, software and app reviews, and deliverables. We too seek invisible chains of inspiration throughout the program, with projects in one course influencing projects in other courses in ways that we can't predict.
While we aspire to a network approach to program development, we also understand the demands of the corporate university, one that requires an accounting of our practices, expects proof we are meeting university Retention, Progression, and Completion goals. But our guiding questions remain grounded in the principles we are establishing for our program because we build to the students, not from the university.
In other words, we want to avoid the "knowing what" approach to course development, to program assessment. We want to break down the walls as much as possible and let the candy spew all over the floor, messy, but accessible to everyone.
Our program assessment began (begins) in a fairly typical way, and this image represents for us the ways that all the features are designed to work together. We have seven program goals, and each of the outcomes for each of the courses and each of the criteria for each of the projects are meant to connect with each other and with these seven goals. And we want to be able to show this in our program assessments.
Obviously, some do it better than others, where connections are clear and precise. Traditionally, these are then presented on a spreadsheet, where each of the boxes represent a particular feature, or unit of work, quantifying connections, showing progress. For example, it may be a competency, it may be a benchmark, mark it with an X. These X's can also be numerical, where a student submits a deliverable and we might evaluate a particular criterion - 3.85 out of 5 - and mark it in the box. Very clean. Very clinical.
And while we certainly understand the value of using data as a lens into our program practices, we also know that numbers cannot tell the whole story. The problem is that these X's only represent the connections of features: outcomes, criteria, goals, clinical.
But we do want to be mindful and reflective of our program and project design in order to promote appropriate learning practices. We want to be conscious of our choices, just as we want our students to be conscious of the choices that they make with technology and understand the ways that technology helps and hinders those choices, as well as the way it both helps and hinders their learning.
And, besides, sometimes learning is messy. That competency isn't always so clear-cut, and that benchmark may not accurately reflect the learning for all of our students, or the learning that they want to do in the course. More importantly, what happens when student learning varies on a particular project, and even in that variation, what happens when their learning splashes over? How do we capture that?
Our goal, and this really is a presentation for another time, is to attempt to capture the different ways that students learn in our program, in our network, and the different ways their learning connects to the learning of other students in the program. We want insight into the students’ processes, habits of minds, and understanding of their context (including constraints and affordances, which we stress as part of their planning and reflecting).
Our assessment, then, needs to be holistic and contextual, and we will need to give up the requirement for anonymity: we can look for particular features expressed within planning documents, reflections, and artifacts together, but we can’t just rank each criteria and come up with an easily recorded number. Instead we get splotches and splatters. And while the concepts go in and out of favor, we really do want reliability and validity in our assessments. But that's a discussion for another day.
We want our program to be a free space, where students can learn at different paces, in different ways; to hear alternative voices and to consider alternative perspectives. UNLV was recently ranked the second most diverse campus in the country. We want to take advantage of that so that students can not only "create knowledge in their own way," but create that knowledge among alternative voices and alternative perspectives, to build internally while always engaging externally.
More importantly, we want out program to encourage marginal thinking, to account for that learning that occurs outside the boundaries of our spreadsheet, and to reward those who care enough to share those insights with the rest of us.
While it's seductive to talk about plans to more accurately collect, analyze, measure, and report the data of our learners in our various courses as they participate in the larger program, we want to offer more than just content limited to a single course at a time, seeking instead to support efficient learning, collaboration, decision-making, and student self-monitoring across a learning environment, as well as to enhance both short-term and long-term course and program assessment strategies.
To conclude, I want to pose three questions for all of you. These are guiding questions for our program, and ones that we find to be the most compelling. As you can see with the first question, sometimes, students have been successful in traditional learning paradigms, and they resist. This can be an initial hindrance.
And our commitment to open educational resources across the program requires us to create repositories for equal access across courses and over time (as well as for access by students who have graduated from the program). This can be difficult in traditional learning management systems. Finally, building quantitative and qualitative assessment tools requires a long-term commitment, one that is flexible enough to develop over time.
As you've probably noticed these past fifteen minutes, in many ways our program thinking is still in abstract stages, and maybe that's a good thing, maybe that's a place we want to remain. But since the Minor was only approved last year, and since my fabulous colleague Denise Tillery and I were both serving in administrative roles last year, this semester is the first we will have the opportunity to turn our full attention to the program. So I'm excited.
And excited for me means that while these questions are difficult, they are welcome because I get to work with brilliant colleagues, fascinating students, and a whole range of people passionate about learning and thinking and engaging every day. Every today. My favorite day.