April 30

Rhizomes

I have been wrestling with the many out-of-control #rhizomes in the garden. Ferns are my current nemesis, as they are encroaching on the hostas and astilbes nearby, boldly erupting right in the middle of them. Since some of my PLN are rhizomatic learning zealots, I have dabbled in trying to understand that learning theory, and its parallels to rhizomes in nature.

My approach to gardening is fairly lackadaisical. I do not coddle the plants, nor play music to them. In general, I pay attention to what kind of lighting environment they need (sun? shade? some of both?) and in the heat of summer, I soak them, using the same method as for the lawn grass, “heavily at infrequent intervals,” which helps them develop a deep root system. Beyond that, I have faith the plants will thrive.

Maybe students would benefit from these same conditions. Maybe we need to provide them with a positive, nurturing environment combined with high expectations for their success and see what happens. John Hattie places “teacher estimates of achievement” as the largest factor which contributes to student learning and achievement. Instead of hovering and intervening at the first sign of struggle, we need to let students dig deep, help them develop a growth mindset. We need to teach them that failure is normal and acceptable, something from which we learn.

The one thing I do not do infuse into my garden is any form of chemical toxins. No chemical fertilizers, no chemical pesticides. As I pondered the “toxins” commonly found in school environments, the first thing that came to mind is the ongoing focus on student, and by extension, teacher success based on standardized achievement tests. In a 2014 survey, the NEA found 45 percent of surveyed teachers “have considered quitting because of standardized testing.”

As if to echo my thoughts, in this Sir Ken Robinson chat, he states “…certainly by the time they are in secondary school many kids are disengaged, bored by what’s happening, and far too often suffer from stress and end up leaving the system entirely…” Robinson thinks these have been long-term problems in schools, but “they’ve been made very much worse… by the emphasis on competition and standardization…The US for example, has spent billions of dollars literally on commercial testing programs for the past 15 years and seen no improvement to speak of… It’s based on a false premise… that education is in some ways still an impersonal process, that it can be improved by standardizing and removing the human factor …”

Robinson then makes an analogy to industrialized agriculture, and how pesticides were introduced, “because these systems for the most part were deprived of the natural process of self-protection, so pesticides were needed to keep away pests and so on, and to protect the crops. Now, it kind of worked, except that it’s destroying the environment, it’s polluting water systems, and it’s eroding topsoil…” He then describes how organic farmers “…promote diversity, they look at the health and ecology of the whole system, but the emphasis is on the soil. If you get the soil right, the plants will grow and be healthy. And, these are sustainable and natural processes. … we’ve lost sight of the natural processes of teaching and learning, and in doing that we’ve eroded the culture of education, the culture of learning… He finishes by positing that we need to “create optimum conditions in schools where [students] want to learn…”

…we’ve lost sight of the natural processes of teaching and learning, and in doing that we’ve eroded the culture of education, the culture of learning…

So, as I continue to dig rhizomes out of my garden, I will simultaneously think of ways to nurture the spread of student rhizomes through the use of high-quality #PBL, which incorporates relevant, real-world and authentic teaching and learning.

March 28

Just Let Go!

Earlier this year, my teen students were reading Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf. Some of them had embraced the rhythm of the epic poem, and were quite enjoying it. Others were stymied by the flow and vocabulary, and were not enjoying it at all.

To guide our in-class discussion, we use a Literature Circle protocol. Students are assigned a role (which changes each week), conduct their investigations outside of class, and bring their findings to discuss with their classmates. The students lead; I only jump in when I feel a point needs further analysis or elaboration.

On this particular day, in the middle of our discussion, the group headed off on a wild tangent. One of the students suggested writing another Beowulf story, with some twists to the characterization. From there, others joined in, and the intensity continued to rise. Ideas ran amok and included everything from Beowulf being gay and marrying King Hrothgar to Grendel’s mother killing Beowulf, and a whole lot of other derivations.

This discussion went on for some time, and included a lot of laughter and off-the-wall thinking. At one point, I was telling myself, “You need to get control back.” Fortunately, my wiser self stepped in and said, “Are you crazy? This is the best thinking they have done all year!”

I was reminded how important it is to be flexible, to savor those times when students are totally engaged in a process, and just let go! Deeper learning is the result.

October 10

Autotdidact \ˌȯ-tō-ˈdī-ˌdaktˈ\ : a self-taught person (Part 2)

In part 1 of my story of autodidacts found here, I describe an experience my son went through last spring, moving from oh-no-let-me-run-away to being labeled an autodidact by his German professor. He has continued his German learning this fall, with the same professor. At least he knows what to expect!

It has been very interesting to watch from the sidelines as he has grown from I’m-still-not-so-sure-I-have-what-it-takes-to-succeed to enthusiastically embracing the challenges his professor offers. Among a class of about 15 students, he and one other are more “advanced,” so the professor has invited them to take on more demanding work. One thing about this professor that thrills me is he uses real literary works, not a dry, dusty textbook. This is in keeping with the project-based learning (PBL) principle of authenticity, defined by the Buck Institute for Education as  “real-world context, tasks and tools, quality standards, or impact – or speaks to students’ personal concerns, interests, and issues in their lives.”

Metamorphosis

The professor recently gave these two students a German-language graphic novel version of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, and is meeting with them one-on-two to discuss the book and to give them individualized assignments. My son arrived home and enthusiastically showed me the book, marveling at the fine artwork. In addition, with a grin he said “Mom, by the time I go to college, I will be ready to do my capstone in German.” [He is dual-enrolled, receiving both high school and college credit, as he is a high school sophomore.] How far he has come, from that uncertain learner to total confidence in his success. I wish every student’s experience could have such a magnificent outcome!

May 16

Autotdidact \ˌȯ-tō-ˈdī-ˌdaktˈ\ : a self-taught person

I am currently a PBL (Project-based learning) coach, helping schools transform themselves from traditional forms of teaching and learning into a model that emphasizes deep, investigative, collaborative, student-centered learning. I came to this career through a circuitous path.

My first career was in information technology, where I spent nearly two decades. I began with computer programming, systems analysis, customer support, and the like. Over a period of time, I gravitated to project management, where I enjoyed a number of extremely challenging, thrilling, hair-pulling, personal growth years.

In the final multi-million dollar projects I facilitated, there were team members from a diverse set of companies, nationalities, and cultures. In those experiences, I engaged in my own real-world learning of becoming a global citizen, a reality our students will face as they enter the work force.

Those years also contributed greatly to my understanding of PBL as a methodology. The underlying concepts of projects and project management are constant, regardless of the industry.

Then, I became a stay-at-home mom. By choice. Definitely the most difficult job I have ever had. But, that’s a different post. When my now-20-year-old son was still a toddler, I began exploring the idea of home schooling. My bosom buddy was already of that mind set, and after research of my own on the advantages, I took the plunge.

During the fifteen years that have elapsed since we formally began schooling at home, I have revised and honed my education philosophy in many iterations, using my two sons as guinea pigs. One fabulous advantage of being a home educator is that if you (or your child) dislike materials, you get rid of them (hopefully by selling them to someone else), even if you are only two weeks into the school year, and then move on.

Over the years, it became apparent to me that the methodology that worked best for me and my kids was student-interest based. This conclusion was further cemented as I took college courses related to education methodologies, and researched the positives that PBL brings to the table, such as that its use “increases long-term retention of content, helps students perform as well as or better than traditional learners in high-stakes tests, improves problem-solving and collaboration skills, and improves students’ attitudes towards learning.”

In our home school, we incorporated lots of investigation, whether wading into a pond to see what lives there, going to museums, creating explosions with cohorts of other home school families, watching documentaries, or building marble runs and trying to get the marbles to go where they were supposed to.

My critter lover brought things home from the pond and built habitats for them. He also had any number of domesticated pets, including frogs, snakes, fish, rats… YouTube became his go-to place to learn nearly everything, not only about his pets, but how to tie a necktie and screen print a shirt.

My thinker child devoured books, both fiction and non-fiction, and contemplated the world from angles I have never considered. We carried on magnificent discussions on everything from Calvin & Hobbes to Socrates (although these may be one and the same).

A recent experience younger son (currently 16) went through brought the value of this methodology all home to me. He is taking German at a local four-year liberal arts college, where he breezed through the first two terms, putting some effort into the class, but not a ton. The third term is being taught by a different professor, who on the first day of class announced that the students should expect to spend ten hours outside class each week on their homework. Oh, and by the way, he only gives a 100% or 0% on assignments, so students need to be extremely diligent in their work (another post sometime about the effectiveness of that approach!).

My son came home practically hyperventilating, and began campaigning to drop the class because it was certain to be too hard and too stressful. I assured him he had three weeks to decide whether he really needed to drop the course, and also stated that he shouldn’t run away from the challenge just because it seemed difficult.

Within a week, the waters had calmed, and the German studies were marching along quite well. The professor didn’t seem quite an all-or-nothing kind of guy. The homework wasn’t taking quite as much time as predicted. Further progress in mastering the German language was being made.

Then, my son came home and said the professor had declared him an autodidact. This was the most brilliant praise I could receive as a home (or any other) educator. Isn’t that our ultimate goal? To develop our students into autodidacts? Our job is not to stuff information into them so they can regurgitate it. Our job is to teach them the concepts and skills that inspire them to remain learners throughout their lifetime. As part of that, we need to help them develop a growth mindset, to realize hard work and persistence are effective in building competence and success.

Now to carry this success forward, to the schools I am currently working with, and to others that embrace PBL. Too many opportunities, too little time.

October 24

How can I help students “level up?”

I recently completed a five-week MOOC offered by Coursera, called Advanced Instructional Strategies in the Virtual Classroom. Successful completion of this course, three other courses,  and a capstone result in a Virtual Teacher credential, which is my goal.

As is the case with the other courses in the stream, this short course required only one assessed assignment. In keeping with a #PBL fundamental, we students had voice-and-choice, with three assignment options. One choice was to create a short welcome or instructional video, with an embedded interactive element.

I took the plunge… Due to the intriguing work/play I conducted in the Connected Learning MOOC (#CLMOOC) last summer, I have a heightened interest in understanding how media tools can be used to enhance engagement and learning in students.

In this course’s assignment description, a suggested list of media tools included “Zaption, ThingLink Video, Camtasia, YouTube Editor, Mozilla Popcorn,” although we were at liberty to use any tool that got the job done. I had encountered work done using Zaption during the CLMOOC, so charged ahead with that one.

Along my journey, I encountered many obstacles, and was thankful I had begun work on the project early! I ultimately prevailed, although my end result lacks finesse. I have two major observations from this experience.

Firstly, free versions of products tend to be severely limited and limiting, contributing to the level of frustration I felt as I put the elements together. I understand the purpose of free versions – a risk-free way to try a product and see if it is a good fit for what one wants to do. However, once an organization goes through this analysis process, I think it makes good business sense to commit to the product(s) that best fit the needs of the organization. Otherwise, there is an abundance of time wasted on learning a new tool which only partially satisfies the creative drive. Which ultimately means the creative drive is not satisfied at all!

The other realization that hit home with me was “Where is the instruction manual?” I reflected on this periodically for several days. My first career was in software development/support/project management, from the mid-70’s to the mid-90’s. There was always an instruction manual. Today, however, there is rarely a traditional instruction manual. Technology tools come with FAQs and “?” functions that (generally) lead to a searchable database.

Perhaps as a result, I observe that most young people jump right into the middle of a new app with no prior knowledge or explanation. They simply start using it, and if they get stumped, they try alternative approaches. When all else fails, they invoke the help function. I posit that students often use this same methodology as they tackle new academic material.

In their 2009 work Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century, Jenkins, Purushotma, Clinton, Weigel & Robison identify what they call new media literacies, among them “Play – The capacity to experiment with the surroundings as a form of problem solving,” “Simulation – The ability to interpret and construct dynamic models of real-world processes,” and “Appropriation – The ability to meaningfully sample and remix media content.”

When students jump into the middle of a new game or app, they immediately began experimenting, to figure out how it works. They use prior knowledge of other apps/games they have played, as well as real-world knowledge that may apply to this particular experience. In general, they are not at all intimidated by the fact that they have no guidance in their introduction to this new functionality, but expect that it will in some way have connections to something they already know.

Maybe we need to apply this reality to teaching! Instead of using a traditional instruct-drill-test process, why don’t we ask our students to solve an authentic problem or situation (another essential PBL element)? As they plunge in, they will encounter points where they do not have adequate knowledge or skills to continue further. As instructor facilitators, we can at that point provide the instruction needed (including the use of community experts and resources), in what I term a just-in-time model. Students will be receptive, because they recognize the need for learning, in order to be able to “level up.”

For the brave of heart, you will find my Zaption assignment here: http://zapt.io/tggknnx3.

 

October 5

STE(A)M vs Humanities: Does PBL apply to both?

Ginger Lewman is a dynamite speaker and workshop guru in the STE(A)M and Makerspace arenas. Check out her blog when you get the chance! I have yet to participate in one of her workshops, but can envision the energy and the “doing” going on as she leads students of all ages through a project. In many people’s minds, the idea of science, technology, engineering, and art all being “adaptable to” or even “led by” projects is reasonable.

I, on the other hand, am way more comfortable over in the Humanities house. History and Literature, yes! Some people have difficulty envisioning these topics being project-based. How do we learn all that content? What about commas and 5-paragraph essays? (Who ever uses a 5-paragraph essay in real life anyway? Especially one written in 25 minutes?) What about the names and dates of the many [dead white guys] of history? This must all be taught in a traditional, text-based, lecture-driven format, right? Wrong!

I was a participant in a  recent Twitter #PBLchat (Tuesday evenings at 8:00 p.m. Eastern time for those interested) where the topic was whether AP courses can be successfully taught using #PBL. The first question we were asked was “What common misconceptions about PBL ( &/or AP) lead many folks to believe you can’t use PBL in an AP course?” Dayna Laur replied “Content coverage is the common misconception. Memorization has traditionally been key. New tests changes have challenged that!” I said “[a common misconception is] PBL, cannot cover required content for Ss to do well on the AP exam.” “Misconception=>PBL is too ‘fluffy & fun’ for AP” was Theresa Shafer’s reply. “There is such a focus on content and strict time constraints” was Tammy Estes Fry’s reaction. Similarly, Jason Reale said “Not enough time to cover the content and do PBL.”

So, if we PBL practitioners believe these are misconceptions, what is the reality of  the learning necessary for students to do well on an AP exam? More generally, how can we effectively use PBL in the Humanities?

Dayna Laur’s book Authentic Learning Experiences tackles this question head-on. Two points she makes have stayed with me. Dayna emphasizes the importance of making PBL inquiries authentic. What does this mean? In a 2006 editorial in the Journal of Authentic LearningAudrey Rule writes that there are four characteristics which are regularly found in authentic learning experiences: “real-world problems that engage learners in the work of professionals; inquiry activities that practice thinking skills and metacognition; discourse among a community of learners; and student empowerment through choice.” In contrast to this definition, “projects” have often been make-work in disguise. “We have a project to make a poster…” “You will re-enact [dead white guy’s] life.”

The other point that struck me from Dayna’s book is that inquiries must be relevant to the students. The best real-world inquiry may flop if the students cannot relate to it.

Which brings me back to [dead white guys]. No student, regardless of ethnicity, cares about [dead white guys], unless he/she can develop a connection. So, why do we insist on portraying history as a series of “important” names and dates that consists of [dead white guys] students don’t identify with? We need instead to make it alive and relevant to them.

Our Meliora students are currently reading Genghis: Birth of an Empire, a historical novel of Genghis Khan’s early life and rise to power. Although their experiences are far removed from Genghis’ life on the steppes of Central Asia, the students are caught up in the adventure of the story. They can also identify with being a child and a teen. At various junctures, we ask our students what their reaction might be if they were in Genghis’ shoes. This requires them to reflect, and to compare the realities of life in Genghis’ place and time with the realities of life today, in the United States. We  also challenge our students to identify leaders they are familiar with, both past and present, who exhibit leadership characteristics similar to Genghis’. This helps them begin to identify patterns in history, and to come to their own conclusion that the past is relevant to today and tomorrow.

Although we do not teach an AP course, we can nonetheless draw parallels between what we do at Meliora and the expectations of the AP World History course. There are five themes which thread throughout the AP course. We  have extensively discussed two of the themes as we have journeyed through Genghis Khan’s early life — “State-Building, Expansion, and Conflict,” and “Development and Transformation of Social Structures.” We have not done this through a dry textbook and rote memorization, but rather through discussions around an exciting adventure story which we use to make connections between Genghis’ time and our own. We have also done in-class research when students lack clarity on a certain question or topic.

Another AP World History objective, as defined in the course overview,  is to “[l]earn to apply historical thinking skills including the ability to craft arguments from evidence; describe, analyze and evaluate events from a chronological perspective; compare and contextualize historical developments; and analyze evidence, reasoning and context to construct and understand historical interpretations.”

Our students accomplish this every year with the multiple projects they develop. For each project, they are required to define and argue a thesis, which they support with extensive evidence gathered from primary and secondary sources. Their argument takes the form of a written narrative, a spoken narrative, or a dramatic performance. To ensure relevance, we allow broad voice and choice in their topic, as long as they remain within the National History Day theme.

Throughout the project development, which consists of many iterations, we constantly challenge the students with questions like “why?” “how do you know?” “what about…” “where is your evidence?” The students ask each other the same kinds of questions during peer reviews. The requirement to think critically, and to communicate their understanding does not end in the classroom. At each increasingly competitive level of History Fair, the students must defend their projects before a new panel of judges. Not only does this provide them with a significant public audience, but it requires them to clearly communicate what they have learned.

An example of a project that substantiates PBL as an effective methodology for the Humanities has Michael Jordan at the center. Not surprisingly, the student who created this project is passionate about basketball. He started his exploration of the topic with the knowledge that Jordan had an enormous economic impact on Chicago because of his ability to draw fans to Chicago Bulls games. The student also knew that the popularity of Jordan’s merchandise gave a boost to the national economy. What the student did not understand was Jordan’s impact on urban renewal near the United Center (stadium). Prior to launching into this project, I don’t think he knew anything about urban renewal. However, due to his research into the topic, and in order to properly develop and support his thesis, the student had to broaden and deepen his view of the “Jordan Effect.” His project went on to become a national contender at National History Day.

You don’t need to take my word for it. National History Day reports that

“[i]n 2010, Rockman et al, an educational evaluation firm based in Bloomington, Indiana, finished a multiyear study that analyzed the impact of National History Day on student learning… NHD students outperform their non-NHD peers on standardized tests in all topic areas — including reading, science, and math, as well as social studies…NHD students learn 21st Century college- and career-ready skills. They learn to collaborate with team members, talk to experts, manage their time, and persevere…NHD students are critical thinkers who can digest, analyze, and synthesize information.”

August 13

Students looking for feedback – PBL and Environmental Science

I have been using #PBL with high school students to explore topics in Environmental Science. Two students have just completed an investigation into the Emerald Ash Borer and its devastating impact on ash trees in the United States. They would love for a broad audience to give them feedback on their work, which may be found at The Emerald Ash Borer: Tiny insect, huge impact. Please leave your comments on this blog post.

Thank you!

10/22/2014

Based on your feedback, the students modified their website to reflect a more complete picture of the impact of the Emerald Ash Borer. Please visit their site again, as they would appreciate further feedback. They have also set up a Twitter account (@SayNotoEAB) and broadcast the link. They would appreciate a lot of re-tweets.

Thank you!

 

July 21

Connected Learning MOOC (#CLMOOC) Make Cycle #6 – The 5-Image Story

The theme of the final week of #CLMOOC 2014 is “the 5-image story.” As I browsed the examples provided by the CLMOOC team, I began to ponder how authors decide on the stories they are going to tell, regardless of the tools they use. I know for myself, the story needs to reflect something about myself; things/people I value, ideas that intrigue me, pursuits I enjoy, etc.

So, for my “big” 5-image story project, I decided to reflect an activity that has been integral to my life for the past several years. My 15-year-old son has become serious in his pursuit of basketball. Once a “dabbler,” he now plays with a travel league, and spends time off-season improving his skills and conditioning. He and I have spent hundreds of hours on the road, attending practices, games, and tournaments.

I have never played team sports, and am clueless about many of them. I know something about basketball, at least the basic rules. The nuances… not so much. So, I began this journey with my son as an observer and sometime cheerleader. I still fill those two roles, but have also acquired a better understanding of the game, and have established some fine friendships with other parents.

Therefore, I felt that highlighting basketball would reflect a portion of my everyday life, my love for and support of my son, and a sport that is relatively prominent in the landscape of our country.

basketball collage

Interestingly, I posted this collage of five photos in the #CLMOOC community, and the universal response was that my photo story emphasizes the vertical aspects of basketball. Wow! I did not consciously focus on this, so maybe my “mind’s eye” was guiding me?

In verbal terms, I was identifying some components of a basketball game: the huddle, the tip-off, individuality, moving the ball around the court, victory. I was trying to identify the dichotomy of individuals seeking to differentiate themselves, whilst also contributing their unique capabilities to a team effort.

In some respects, I find this illustration parallels the American culture. We identify with this nebulous ideal of “American,” including flag-waving and cheering on our favorite sports teams, while simultaneously asserting our right to be individuals, with divergent values and goals.

As I evolved my collage of five still photos into a more fluid story, I encountered the frustration of technology-that-does-some-good-things-but-not-others. I first tried ThingLink, but quickly became frustrated. I need to consult with my CLMOOC compatriots to figure this out. Maybe the lesson for me as an educator is to ensure I have a basic understanding of any of the tools I ask my students to use.

Then, I turned to Zeega. Initially, I was under-impressed, but continued to experiment. I figured out I could superimpose audio using Soundcloud, and that I could use Flickr images and Giphy .gifs to enhance my story. The chosen elements are layers that can be added, removed, and “faded out” with a few keystrokes. After a bit of a learning curve, I began to get the hang of the tool, and started to have fun.

The beauty of the many technology tools available to even the novice user is that there is instant feedback on one’s creation. I went through several iterations of adding elements, deciding I liked them (or not), then modifying my Zeega to correctly reflect the story I wished to tell. I chose and discarded elements with abandon. This was not a methodical figure-it-all-out-and-put-it-together, but rather a free-flowing trial-and-error approach.

My final result (http://zeega.com/167226) is not “perfect,” but overall it depicts my most important ideas about the sport of basketball. I would love to hear your reactions!

May 22

Tutoring, Mentoring, and PBL

This week, I participated in the Tutor/Mentor Leadership and Networking Conference in Chicago. It was the 41st occurrence of the semi-annual conference, but the first time I attended. Organized by Daniel Bassill, it brings together people from many different organizations, and offers the opportunity to learn from each other, and to create new network connections with other people that participate in the tutor/mentor world.

Daniel and I “met” each other during a Deeper Learning MOOC, at which time he invited me to present a #PBL workshop at the conference. I must admit I initially had some questions as to whether/what attendees at this conference would like to learn about PBL, or at least from me, since I have limited experience in the tutor/mentor world.

After perusing the Tutor/Mentor Institute website, and after reflecting for awhile, I concluded that PBL applies to disadvantaged youth perhaps even more than others. These young people are struggling to feel empowered, to be recognized as capable, and to have control of their lives. The PBL model can be applied to a wide diversity of activities, not only those considered “academic,” so can be used in pretty much any environment that provides support and encouragement as learners seek to attain authentic, real-world goals.

So, I took the plunge and agreed to present a workshop on PBL. Dan and I interacted a few times about the conference, how many copies I should make of materials, etc. I also checked the registration list, to try and get a feel for the audience. Nonetheless, given I had no previous exposure to this audience, I felt unease as I marched in. What did this audience hope to learn? How could I engage them to the fullest? How could I add value?

At the beginning of my workshop, I asked each person to introduce themselves, and to state their purpose in attending this particular workshop. I was thrilled with the eagerness the audience expressed to better understand how to apply PBL to their work with young people; in after-school programs, in classrooms, in young-adult life skills training programs. Many already recognized that PBL provides authenticity and real-world value.

I especially appreciated the last segment of the workshop, when participants brought their questions and problems to the group, and the thoughtful responses they received. There was strong evidence of 21st-Century skills – communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity – in the way the group interacted. This group of committed adults will undoubtedly teach those skills to those they mentor.

To add to my elation, the keynote speaker during the luncheon was Eric Davis, the founder and director of GCE High School, in Chicago. This is a PBL school; a large percentage of the students come from disadvantaged circumstances. Eric stated that the school has ties into 200+ organizations that the students work with to acquire hands-on, real-world experience. Among the statistics on their website are: “College Acceptance Rate: 100%, First Choice College Selection: 100%, Graduation Rate: 100%.” This school is high on my list of places to visit!

So, thank you Dan, for inviting me into your world! I look forward to further collaborative efforts, and to ongoing #deeperlearning.

 

April 25

MOOCs

I am in the midst of my third MOOC. At the time I registered for #DLMOOC, I had already registered for History of the Slave South, offered through Coursera. My current foray is into Design Thinking, offered by Iversity.

The three courses are highly divergent in their content, presentation, and instructor-student interaction. As I reflect on my reaction to the various courses, I am trying to determine how and why I feel differently about them.

History of the Slave South is a modified version of a University of Pennsylvania course, presented by Professor Stephanie McCurry. It was the most traditional of the three courses. There was a syllabus, with precise deadlines (for those who wanted to receive a certificate of completion). There were lectures to watch (with short quizzes integrated), readings (mostly primary source materials), and weekly online discussions on a specific topic.

There were also five writing assignments over the ten weeks, which required careful analysis and synthesis of course content. In addition to writing, each student was required to peer review other students’ work, and evaluate their own work. The review process was structured; there were particular aspects of the writing that were evaluated (e.g. “what is the writer’s thesis?”).

Some students complained loudly about the peer review process, declaring that it was too much work. I thought it was a great aspect of the course, as I learned something from each of my peer’s commentaries on my work. I also learned from my peers’ analysis of the same materials I had read, given their insights were typically somewhat different than mine.

I thoroughly enjoyed History of the Slave South, as Professor McCurry is a knowledgeable and articulate lecturer, and the topics we covered were fascinating. The online discussions were lively, although I followed few of the thousands of posts. I also found it interesting to gain the perspectives of students living outside of the United States, of which there we many. This course fed my intellectual self.

DLMOOC was presented in a dramatically different fashion. Each week, there were a number of “readings,” although some of those were actually video presentations. There were online discussions through G+. Online panel discussions were scheduled once or twice a week, which could be “attended,” or watched later, in the archived course materials. Optional assignments were also defined, some of which I did, others I did not.

Early on, a variety of sub-groups formed, based on specific interests. The discussions that developed in these groups were free-form, with abundant sharing of information and ideas. Due to participating in some of these groups, I have expanded my #PLN, since several participants have expertise that will help me grow professionally.

The facilitators’ attitude, which they announced periodically throughout the course, was that participants were free to come and go as they wished, with no obligations, and no guilt. My personality being what it is, I couldn’t be so laissez-faire in my participation, but I certainly had weeks when I was “behind,” and times when I only gave cursory attention to the materials.

One of the (optional) assignments each week was to tweet about a particular topic. I thought this was clever; a simple, effective way to raise awareness in the Twitter world that DLMOOC was happening, and to give a glimpse into some of the topics we were exploring.

I derived a great deal of knowledge and enjoyment from DLMOOC. The formal presentations, and the less formal discussions, added to my existing knowledge related to PBL, and many other topics in education. The free-flowing format encouraged participants to share, including articles, experience, links to resources, etc. The fact the course materials and discussions are archived indefinitely adds to the appeal – I can return at any time to deepen my understanding. This course fed my professional self.

I’m in the throes of Design Thinking, and am struggling to enjoy this MOOC. The format of the course is short lectures, many of which are followed by short quizzes. For each lecture, there is also a discussion question. Most of the lessons also include additional (optional) reading material.

As I reflect, I think there are two major reasons for my discontent. The first is that the concepts that have been presented so far are ones I already know something about, so minimal #deeperlearning is happening. I am bored.

The second reason is that the discussions seem relatively shallow, and often esoteric. Maybe that is what causes me the most discomfort – although I greatly enjoy intellectual discussions, endless navel-gazing does not excite me. So, this course and I may not be a good fit. Nonetheless, I will finish it, because giving up is bad form, both for my sense of self, and in my role of modeling #lifelonglearning to the  students I interact with. This course is not feeding my artistic self.

As I reflect on what I liked and did not like, I wonder how today’s young students would react to these courses. I find I need to constantly put myself into their shoes, to remind myself how different their reality is from mine. Their world has always had the Internet. Living without some sort of hand-held technology device (smartphone, iPod, tablet…) is inconceivable to them. These are two glaring differences between their childhood and mine, but there are many others. This reality provides a good argument as to why we should include students in the planning process. We need to invite them to discuss with us what and how they think they should learn!