Learner-Shaped Technology

December 19, 2012

Highlights from the Future of Higher Education Forum

Image made available via CC license @ http://www.flickr.com/photos/feuilllu/5309422823/sizes/m/in/photostream/

Dan Cohen’s comments in the latest installment of the Digital Campus podcast prodded me to check out footage from George Mason University’s recent Forum on the Future of Higher Education.  I wanted to link to and highlight a few snippets that really resonated. A few notes:

*I have to admit that Dan jokingly referring to some of the discussion as being Jerry-Springer-like piqued my interest.  The discussion is actually very civil, and I appreciate Dan’s thoughtful skepticism.

*I haven’t watched all the footage. I saw individuals in the videos whose work I was familiar with (Dan Cohen, Bob Beichner, and Bryan Alexander) and tended to focus on their comments and responses to their insights.

*The video links in the titles below should take you to the appropriate spot in the conversation.  I make note of the time when the discussion shifts and you may want to stop and move on to the next snippet.

1. Context and Learning Environments:  (stop at 33:50) –  I like Dan’s focus on the university’s role in scaffolding and contextualizing information and reminding us that most learners need help with this.  Instructors as designers.

2. Measuring ‘Learning’ and Assessment:  (stop at 16:40) – Dan reminds us that focus on assessment (especially the easy to measure stuff) and learner analytics doesn’t paint a complete picture–not even close. He argues that a university also provides an environment for unexpected outcomes and ways of thinking—aspects of education that don’t lend themselves to tidy measurement.  This reminds me of a recent podcast by Freakonomics contributor Stephen Dubner in which he discusses lessons he uses everyday in his work with the professors who inspired the practice (even if they don’t remember the moment of inspiration!).

3. Student-Centered Instruction: (stop at 8:30) – Bob Beichner describes the SCALE-UP project at NC State, which utilizes problem-based-learning in large intro courses, and he shares how it’s working.  This design is being implemented at many schools across the country, including at nearby Clemson University. The model is adaptable to smaller classes.  Some classrooms would need some serious retrofitting to make this model possible, but it’s worth it.

4. Extending the Model Beyond STEM disciplines (stop at 1:04:45) – Bob shares how the SCALE-UP model can be used across disciplines. I really like how his example covers the entire learning cycle and mixes team and individual work.  Bryan Alexander compares technology use in the sciences and humanities.

5. MOOCs—It’s Complicated:  (stop at 41:35)  – Bryan provides a great overview of the different types of MOOCs, MOOC business models, and how colleges might leverage resources from MOOCs on campus. He also contextualizes several instructional technologies on the Gardner hype cycle.  Ah, the trough of disillusionment.


November 20, 2012

The Flipped Classroom: Traps and Before the Lecture

Filed under: blended-learning,design,education,flipped-classroom,technology — Mike W @ 3:27 pm

Take a minute to reflect on some of your biggest teaching fails.  Many of my in-class fails started this way:

“Today I’m going to talk about . . . “

No context.  No student experience on which to build.  Plummeting energy in the room (including my own) . . .

Are we on our way to reproducing this experience online with the flipped classroom?

As I read more examples about how instructors are implementing flipped classrooms, I’m actually very encouraged that this can be done to optimize class time together for deeper student learning. Derek Bruff has a great post and supporting visuals that describe the flipped approach and more importantly the inherent traps.

“The lecture video portion of the flipped classroom approach gets a lot of attention because it’s the piece that involves shiny new technologies, but it’s the pedagogy that drives the flipped classroom, not the technology.  If all you’re doing is posting lecture videos online, you’re not flipping your classroom and, more importantly, you’re missing out on the learning opportunities the full model provides.”

A complex visualization, such as this one from the online comic xkcd can serve as a first exposure or student experience.

I want to build on this idea of traps inherent in the flipped system. Assuming ‘first exposure’ = ‘content delivery’ makes the trap potentially more insidious.  This assumption is likely to lead to mimicking the mistake above, only this time, online.  In this case, it’s actually worse. The instructor is far removed from the vacant stares of the students and unable to make mid-class corrections (like asking questions and bringing student experience back to the forefront).  A misunderstanding of the flipped design, coupled with technology, not only encourages but hides design flaws—a dangerous combination.  To overcome these challenges, we need to consider important steps that come before ‘first exposure’ or rethink what first exposure really means (something other than content-heavy lecture).

So what comes before the online lecture?  I’ll start with an in-person example. I co-led a GIS in the Humanities workshop with Sean Connin (Trinity University) and Alex Chaucer (Skidmore College) in which Alex facilitated a discussion about several key concepts in Yi-Fu Tuan’s Space and Place.  His session was a great example of designing around the ‘lead-with-content’ trap. Alex could have lectured about the concepts, but instead, he asked us to spend a few minutes visiting the streets of our childhood using Google Earth street view as well as the interactive Wilderness Downtown website. He posed several questions for reflection before the discussion and introduction of new concepts from the book. The experience was powerful and led to deeper understanding. The brief activity helped us contextualize and draw on previous experience (and emotion!), so the subsequent lecture and discussion had purpose. Alex not only provided a compelling hook, but the design helped us situate new ideas within previous experiences because he had so effectively activated our prior learning.

As we create flipped experiences for students, we’re bound to have a laser-like focus on the quality of the recorded lectures, making it easy to lose sight of the importance of contextualizing those lectures—either within the lecture itself or with activities beforehand. The best pre-lecture activities leave students perplexed and wanting to know more, but also help them situate what’s to come with what they’ve already learned.  Maybe the experience unravels a misconception. Perhaps it oversimplifies a complex topic and encourages the student to develop probing questions. I’m a big fan of Marilla Svinicki’s (1987) call for using the Kolb Learning Cycle as a model for designing instruction.  In that model, experience and reflection precede concept development (often a big component of lecture), so the model serves as a good visual reminder to help us avoid traps.  As her article points out, experience can come in many forms (reading, simulations, observation, evaluating a visualization, etc.).  Careful design, with balanced guidance, is key to purposeful exploration, rather than aimless wandering.

The RadioLab podcast is another great example of this design, and they’re just using audio! Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich are masters at using stories to develop complex ideas, skillfully weaving process and content.  I mapped their show on randomness (stochasticity) onto the learning cycle.

Radiolab podcast mapped onto the learning cycle.

I doubt they had the learning cycle in mind when designing the show, but their online “lecture” about randomness doesn’t really begin until after they’ve provided the listener with an experience (a story of the two Lauras) and an opportunity to reflect on the story.  They even throw in an additional coin flipping experience to boot before moving on to the idea that, “Real randomness when you see it, just doesn’t feel random enough.“

I think it’s somewhat natural for teachers to activate experience and provide opportunities for students to reflect and situate new ideas in the physical classroom.  I’m not sure this is so natural online.  So as we look at the flow of the ‘flipped classroom’ let’s add an element right at the beginning—student experience and reflection. This way, passive information reception isn’t the students’ first exposure.  When I think about the flipped classroom movement, I’m both wary and excited. There are some serious traps; however, executed with design at the forefront, the opportunities are vast.  We certainly have our work cut out for us.  Not only do we have to provide information online in a compelling way, but we have to design student experiences that make the content meaningful. Oh, and then there’s the business of designing in-class activities.

Feedback welcome!

Thanks to Diane Boyd for her comments on the draft of this post.  Many of the ideas in this post gelled as a result of preparing for a conference presentation with colleague Jeremy Donald.  A post-presentation debrief over spicy Thai food helped even more.  Thanks Jeremy!

Update:  After authoring this post, I caught up with my feed reading and realized Dan Meyer had also emphasized putting something BEFORE the online lecture to activate students’ intellectual need.  I’m happy to be on the same page as Dan Meyer and others (see comments), even if it means my observation isn’t as original as I first thought!

Svinicki, M. D., & Dixon, N. M. (1987). The Kolb model modified for classroom activities. College Teaching, 35(4), 141–146.

July 31, 2012

Designing In-Class Activities in the Flipped and Blended Learning Classroom: An Example

Filed under: blended-learning,design,flipped-classroom,general — Mike W @ 1:28 pm

Overview:  This post provides information about blended learning / flipped classroom modules that we developed for classes that involve creating and analyzing maps.  I briefly discuss the reasoning behind our design as well express my hope that more of the dialog surrounding blended learning and flipping the classroom will focus on resources that help guide the design of effective in-class activities. The modules can be found at https://sites.google.com/a/trinity.edu/acs_grant_gis/home .

There’s been a great deal of chatter recently about the “flipped classroom” and “blended learning”.  If we’re to have deeper dialog, I think it’s important to note that the real conversation is about design. Effective teachers strive to design environments (whether physical or digital) that set the stage for in-class interactions that are rigorous, robust, analytical, dynamic and lead to deeper learning.  Online components are a great resource to help optimize time together; however, the design process is much more complicated than simply inverting in- and out-of-class activities. I’m grateful that these new terms have the potential to inspire a renewed focus on assignment and course design, but the idea behind the flipped classroom is hardly new. Much of our work with faculty at the Center for Teaching and Learning has revolved around designing strategies that help move in-class activities away from the dissemination of information towards more active student analysis and synthesis. Instructors have been doing this long before these terms became popular.

Much of the recent discussion seems to be about moving current lectures online (and the technology to enable this), with class time being used for having students “work in groups to solve problems”—almost as an afterthought.   I’m hoping the dialog will continue to evolve to include more discussion about how to design these in-class sessions more effectively so that students do more than just work in parallel or share algorithms.  Designing these in-class activities is difficult and where the rubber truly meets the road. Simply putting students in groups (after they’ve watched a lecture online) to solve poorly designed problems is a recipe for failure and frustration.  Flipped interactions which hinge on poorly designed in-class sessions are unlikely to promote deeper conceptual understanding and realize the full potential of supplementing classes with online resources.

Just a few resources for designing better in-class problems that I’ve found to be helpful:

Now it’s time to put my money where my mouth is. Through a grant from the Associated Colleges of the South, I’ve been working with Jeremy Donald at Trinity University to design blended learning modules that can be used in any course in which analyzing and creating maps plays and important role. Here are a couple pertinent FAQs from the project:

Q: Are you just trying to move lectures out of class?
A: Not at all. We’ve attempted to do more than just move lectures and GIS “how-tos” online.  You’ll notice in the videos that our focus isn’t so much on tools, but more on concepts. Our goal is to help develop an environment in which students can begin to think more critically about maps and visualization (before they dig into the nuts and bolts of creating maps).   We’re hoping that by introducing students to some concepts and questions outside of class, in-class time can be used to amp up the opportunity for analysis and synthesis.

Q: What’s guiding your design?
A: We are both Kolb Learning Cycle junkies and have been impressed with the results of using Kolb’s Learning Cycle as an assignment and course design framework. Kolb’s paradigm involves a cycle of exploration, reflection, conceptualization, and application.  Our experience is that leading with exploration (whether it be a lab, open-ended question, computer simulation, webcast, etc.) engages and helps students build a framework on which to situate new experiences with prior knowledge, establishing a path towards deep understanding.  Our goal is to move some of the stages of the cycle online to free up class time for application and synthesis.

We’d love to know the answers to the following questions:

1) How’d we do?  How can the modules be improved?  Can you use these in your courses?
2) What principles and resources have you found helpful in designing meaningful in-class problems for students to attack?  How do you design and utilize online environments to set the stage for more meaningful in-class interaction?

Image sources:  http://www.flickr.com/photos/98715075@N00/410132468/ and http://www.flickr.com/photos/37113212@N08/5308079192/

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