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.