Culture Magazine

Learning/Teaching Styles: Connected Courses Exemplars

By Bbenzon @bbenzon
When I signed up with the course I did so without much investigation or thought. To be sure, I’ve been online and active for two decades and know the web fairly well, and I’d even taught an online course way back in the pre-web era. But I figured I should get up to speed on this that and the other. So, I took a quick look at the description, saw that Howard Rheingold was on board, and I signed up.
How could I miss? I’d learn about some technology, learn what other folks are up to, and meet some interesting people. It was a no-brainer.
But, I didn’t realize something that I might have picked up if I’d read the “fine print” more carefully:
In 2013, the DML Hub, as part of the MacArthur Foundation supported Digital Media and Learning Initiative, launched Reclaim Open Learning, an effort to explore the intersections between higher education, open learning, and the connected learning model in the midst of MOOC mania. The effort focused on returning to core pedagogical and learning principles, the ethos of the open web, and end-to-end faculty and student innovation when attention was shifting to large institutionalized initiatives and old-school top-down pedagogical and learning models...
It’s the implications of “MOOC mania” and “returning to core pedagogical and learning principles” that I either didn’t notice or didn’t think about. And if I’d thought about them it’s not clear whether or not that would have gotten me to where I am now.
It’s not, mind you, that I’m particularly interested in MOOCs. I think “MOOC mania” is a reasonable characterization of the phenomenon that, for example, lead one University of Virginia board member to go nuts – though as I recall, they don’t call them “board members” at UVA. MOOCs are a certain kind of pedagogical system and they have a place, but you can’t base a whole college curriculum on MOOCs and MOOCs aren’t appropriate for the things I’ve got in mind for myself.
But it’s not at all clear to me that the creators of MOOCs had lost touch with “core pedagogical and learning principles.” Perhaps they’d just focused on one set of principles to the exclusion of others.
Let’s continue with the Connected Courses fine print:
One of the outcomes of this effort was a set of innovation prize winners – phonar, ds106, and FemTechNet – that exemplified core principles and approaches that shared a family resemblance both philosophically and in their implementation. These courses were anchored in a university course that stressed critical thinking in the context of creative production, and which had created infrastructures and modes of participation that lived on the open web. Over time, these projects have built a strong online community and brand that has a life outside of the university course. Together, they provide a set of models and learning that we felt could inform the development of more open courses that are highly participatory and aligned with the principles of connected learning.
OK. “Critical thinking in the context of creative production” – sounds good, but what does it mean in practice?
Three Exemplars
So I went to the web sites for the three courses that are mentioned and snatched a bit of prose from each.
FemTechNet’s “Dialogues in Feminism and Technology,” bills itself as the first “distributed online collaborative course” or DOCC. In their beta outing, students at 15 campuses across the country applied feminist texts to digital art, drawing connections between the dichotomies of software/hardware and feminism/masculinity. They stormed Wikipedia, created sculptures, “crafts” and images and held dialogues with others of diverse backgrounds in communities across the country. ...
Q: How do you describe FemTechNet to people who have never heard of it?
really it was formed to bring together a community of feminist artists and intellectuals in [a] way that was more open than you can find in any educational institution across the country and make that available to people who weren’t at elite institutions. There was a range of types of schools–it’s not just Ivies and small private schools. It was a great experience to go through the same course alongside students from Bowling Green, or open learners in San Antonio who aren’t enrolled in any sort of higher ed institution. There were different perspectives in regions across the country.
DS106: Enabling Open, Public, Participatory Learning
From the case study compiled by Howard Rheingold:
Digital Storytelling 106 – better known as "ds106" – sprouted in 2010 as a computer science class on digital storytelling at University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Founded by Jim Groom, educational technology consultant Alan Levine, and instructional technologists Martha Burtis & Tom Woodward, ds106 has evolved into a model for all instructors and students who aspire to experience, explore, and extend connected learning...
Key Takeaways
  • Faculty have to confront their discomfort with giving up some control to students, enabling students to help shape the assignments, set the tenor of the class, and even help form assessment criteria.
  • Instructors must blog themselves. Groom finds that his blogging has particular benefits for him in terms of being a networked scholar, technologist, and teacher. Levine adds: "It's more than blogging – as instructors, we do the same work we ask our students to do. This shifts the power dynamic of the teacher-student relationship."
  • The existence of a small but fiercely vocal community of believers in the philosophy and ethos of the open web will contribute to success. Seek out those with similar spirits via Twitter and other online community spaces.

... Even before ds106 officially launched, instructors and students collaborated to grow the course into an interest-powered learning community with pop culture as its subject matter. It is peer-supported to the point where students make up their own assignments. The assignments are academically oriented toward web rhetorics and an examination of the nature of all disciplines in an age of digital media. Participants have a shared purpose that is the shared purpose of the web: "sharing things we find interesting or creating things that other people find interesting" (in the words of ds106 co-creator Jim Groom) via a transmedia production-centered orientation that includes blogs, videos, graphics, mashups, radio and television. The ds106 course is also openly networked to include hundreds of people outside the University of Mary Washington and former students of the course – connecting learners across boundaries of time as well as space.
Phonar: Transmedia Storytelling Through Openly Networked Learning
From the case study compiled by Howard Rheingold:
Phonar, an abbreviation of PHOtography and NARrative, is an in-person course at Coventry University in the UK and an open online course for as many as 35,000 participants around the world who co-create learning communities through a variety of media including blogs and a blog hub, Twitter (using the #phonar hashtag), and a Google+ community. The class grew out two forces that were created by the advent of digital media and global networks: (1) the problem of how to monetize cultural products such as photographs now that they can be so easily reproduced and distributed; and (2) the phenomenon of open, connected, hybrid courses that take place simultaneously online and in a physical classroom. In Phonar, the subject matter of photography as a vehicle for transmedia storytelling meshes with -- and mutually amplifies -- the networked forums through which students and instructor communicate...
Much of the Web is visual. Together with the Web's facilitation of communication among geographically separated people through text, image, video, and voice, the ease of sharing images online created the conditions for a new kind of open, connected learning about photography as a storytelling medium -- and also about the new social realities of what had, traditionally, been a solitary medium. The kind of networked co-learning among photographers and their audiences that Phonar highlights feels to me like a version of what Shelly Terrell calls "passionate learning networks."
That’s hardly a random sample of the “space” of subjects and skills taught in higher education. In fact, it seems to me to be a rather particular and focused space. How far can we extend the techniques that have worked so well in that region of pedagogical space?
I certainly don’t know, and I assume that that’s one of the things that will begin to emerge out of this workshop, perhaps not immediately, but in time.
Design and Build vs. Analyze and Describe
What strikes me about those three courses that each is about story telling in one way or another. But they’re not about story telling in the way that courses on the novels or films are about story telling. In those courses you read or watch stories someone else has told and learn how to analyze and interpret them. In these three courses students look at a bunch of stuff and learn how to craft their own stories out of that stuff, though perhaps less so in ds106 than in the other two.
Those two things – learning about existing stories vs. crafting your own – are very different. It’s not at all obvious to me that the pedagogical techniques that work well in crafting stories will also work well in learning to analyze existing stories. They may, they may not. But I wouldn’t want to assume so. Nor for that matter, do I think there is a sharp and clear difference between the two activities. There isn’t. But there is a difference in emphasis and in the end product.
The difference, in fact, seems to me very like that between science and engineering. Many people think that science and engineering are those disciplines that involve math and, well, you know, techy stuff – that’s what I thought for years. And, yes, they do. But they’re still very different in orientation. Engineers have to know a good deal of science and math, but they’re not scientists or mathematicians.
They use the science and math to different ends than scientists. Scientists are interested in figuring out how the world works whereas engineers design and build things. Engineers have to create something out of nothing; scientists do not. It’s one thing to use your knowledge of thermodynamics to design and build a more effective automobile engine. It’s something entirely different to run an engine in the lab so you can study thermodynamics.
As soon as I thought about THAT I got to thinking about the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, where I had been on the faculty some years ago. RPI is an engineering school; the undergraduate engineering curriculum has an engineering stem that includes a first year practicum in design – or at least it did back in the 1980s, I don’t know about now. But the School of Engineering still emphasizes design opportunities and they’re certainly proud of their design lab (which wasn’t there when I was on the faculty). I don’t know how individual faculty members run those design labs, but I did once work for a company that was hatched as the final project in an undergraduate course in entrepreneurship at RPI. In that course the students certainly did have a great deal of responsibility and freedom to create.
So, what I’m wondering is whether or not the pedagogical principles at work in the three example courses in the previous section are more like those in an engineering design lab or a course in entrepreneurship than they are like those in a course in Mandarin Chinese, Middle Eastern history from the 7th through the 15th Centuries CE, or Shakespeare’s tragedies. Each of those courses has a specific body of material that needs to be learned. While students may have a fair amount of freedom to explore their own interests within the context of the history or the literature course, they don’t get to create the substance of those courses from nothing.
It’s not something I’ve had a chance to think through, but at the moment I’m going to claim that, yes, the Connected Courses exemplars are more like an engineering lab than like a history or a literature course and not much like a language course. That is, if you think about the issues raised in those comparisons, you’re going to get somewhere, perhaps a deeper understanding of “core pedagogical and learning principles.” Maybe there’s more than one set of core principles depending on the nature of what’s being taught. Or maybe there really is a single core, but with distinctly different manifestations depending on pedagogical context.

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