Constructed Meaning

Many of you who have spent anytime around me in the last six months or so know that I taught (what I thought to be) an interesting course with my friend and colleague Scott McDonald last spring. Our course was a graduate seminar offered in the College of Education’s Curriculum and Development department under the working title of Disruptive Technologies for Teaching and Learning. Scott and I both felt the course was a bit of a grand experiment — one where we worked hard to mix the “down in the trenches” application of potentially disruptive social technologies with the best of the rigor associated with a graduate level course. We focused all of our activities, discussions, and readings around our three themes — community, identity, and design.

In many ways, we hoped that the design would emerge throughout the semester — we did quite a bit of planning, but didn’t prescribe everything. Scott and I had a really solid notion of what we were going to do and really understood what we wanted the students to come away with, but we did stop short of producing a full 15 week syllabus. Instead opting for a more flexible approach in which we broke the course into thirds — faculty driven, student exploration, student driven. Each third had about 5 weeks assigned to it. It worked fairly well.

The constructivist nature of the course was very comfortable to me, but I could tell that there were some students who were uncomfortable with it. I just got my SRTE (student rating of teaching effectiveness) results — nothing like timely feedback — and while solid, they express the fact that students were agitated/uncomfortable/uptight/confused with the open nature of the course. SRTE scores are out of 7 and I received a score lower than 6 on only 2 of the 15 items … both make me wonder about our approach and students’ readiness for it.

For the item, “Rate the organization of the course material” I received a 5.82 … while I believe this is still strong I would like to dig into that a little further. Scott and I did not organize the course in a traditional way at all — we did not use ANGEL (our course management system) to post assignemnts, instead opting to have a course blog that he and I could post to. The syllabus was there as were the links to the calendar, readings, and assignments. Much of the content of the course was created by the students in their own blogs and then aggregated together into a social ratings site we set up. So the question I have is related to student expectations with regard to material findability. Here’s the thing, are students so comfortable with the ability to log into ANGEL that they feel a course is disorganized if the majority of the material exist openly on the web? If this is the case, what does it say about our ability to move beyond the CMS and into the open web for course materials?

The other item I got tagged on was, “Rate the clarity of the syllabus in stating course objectives, course outline, and criteria for grades.” I got a 5.36 on that one … again, relatively high, but below the 6 level. This is another one that worries me a bit — but I am torn. As an instructional designer I am keenly aware of the need to clarify all expectations, but as someone who is interested in a more agile approach to teaching and learning I cringe at programmed instruction. The syllabus we posted went through the end of the 4th week … after that, the students were to help co-create the course. And they did! They kicked ass throughout the semester, but really came alive when much of the conversation was left up to them. It is tough to understand how one can be both clear with expectations via a course outline and maintain an open flow to the learning opportunities. So with this I am left wondering how comfortable our learners are with the ideas that they must be (at least) partially responsible for making the learning space come alive. Furthermore I am left wondering how this would play out in an undergraduate course — low structure, but big opportunities to adjust the flow of the course based on how the students are moving through the learning process?

At the end of the day there are things I would change and Scott and I have discussed some of them. We plan to teach the course again with a few minor tweaks to see what happens. But when, on the first day of class, you walk in and announce to the students that the next 15 weeks will be a grand experiment you have to be ready to deal with the unknown. I can’t think of a better compliment than to be dinged on the two items I discussed — they indicate we made the experience slightly uncomfortable and off-balance. That in and of itself in indicative of disruption.

10 thoughts on “Constructed Meaning

  1. I’d say given the nature of the class you were bound to get dinged by someone on organization and clarity of the syllabus. Not having a full syllabus before the class on the surface may look like it was unorganized and that you were making it up as you went along. However, if you clearly stated that would be the case in the course description and featured it as one of the expectations of the course, they should have had no problem with it. Especially in a graduate seminar in curriculum development. What better hands-on experience could you give them than letting them help create the course? As far as using ANGEL, they are probably just so used to going there for all their other classes that it makes them have to remember to go to still another site for one course. Perhaps a presence in ANGEL that is no more than a link to the course blog might have helped there.

  2. It may come as a bit of a shock that most students don’t really give much thought to those end-of-semester evaluations… it’s rare that anybody spends more than 2 minutes filling them out (generally they are handed out at the very end of a class, when everybody is itching to get out the door). I imagine most chose to give you such a low score on organization because the organization of your class was so radically different from nearly every other class they have taken. By the time you’re in graduate school, you’ve already experienced (at minimum) 4-5 years of college classes and have a very defined set of expectations for how a class should go.

    Here at USF, the CMS model is really entrenched – every single one of my classes has had a significant amount of course material on Blackboard. I’ve got to say, it’s a bit comforting to see that same old interface with the big buttons off to the left (most of which don’t lead to anything), so I can sympathize with those who might be a little hesitant about using something else. But if you make the right arguments (i.e. every post you write won’t disappear at the end of the semester) I don’t think it would be to difficult to gain some converts. Certainly seems like you did.

  3. Hi Cole

    Karl Kapp mentioned you site — so, first, he was right – great work.

    My first thought is “how could you present openness, through a thought out syllabus?”

    I would focus on the extent of the syllabus — ie — plan the entire course in terms of weeks. BUT — remember, planning does not take away flexibility. If the students see organization around creative thought, they will focus on the organization being present, and anticipate the creative nature of the activity. In essence, you would be telling them — “ok — we are going to be creative now!”

    If you are really focusing on the scores for those two areas, give the students what they seem to need, structure. After all, it does not seem they had issues with the actual work or assignments.

    I think in the end, you are correct — this is a positive response.

  4. Thanks for the comments — all three of you! I should mention that we did setup a week-by-week calendar using google calendar that had some level of detail on it (technology we’d be discussing, readings, and any other activity). Like the other stuff we did it outside the CMS, but used the CMS to display it. It is important to note that we did *use* the CMS, but we used it as more of a portal — that way students only had to remember the URL for ANGEL.

    I am still amazed at how much we rely on the CMS as the organizing tool for teaching. Not b/c it isn’t up to the challenge, but that expectations on both sides (faculty and students) has been set so quickly. Eight years ago we didn’t have anything like a CMS and now everyone expects everything to be laid out in one. Interesting.

  5. I think that the interesting thing is that we had a great deal of conceptual structure to the course. As you mention, we planned a lot out prior to class starting and continued to meet and plan during the semester. The difference seemed to be that from the students point of view the structure was emerging and much of it was invisible. They don’t like this sort of ambiguity. I see it in my doctoral students when it comes to planning their program or their dissertation. They have never been in charge of their own learning and had to take some personal responsibility for what is valuable. When they are asked to do it they panic and blame us for not giving them enough structure. Is it any wonder that so many want to stay students forever – no decisions to make except where to go after class.

  6. Wow … good question, Mark. That’s something I’ll need to think about. Maybe something to address in a separate post. I’m curious what you think?

  7. Did you have the syllabus in the open and editable by the class? Maybe there is a disconnect there between doing and communicating.

  8. That is a good question, Brett … we did have a syllabus, but we did not leave it open for students to edit. That is a killer idea for a course like this! I’ll be doing that in the future. Thanks!

  9. Pingback: Coke v. Pepsi — design:learning

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