GEDI Gems: Learner-Centered Syllabi Nuggets from GEDI@VT

In lieu of an introduction: After two glorious years facilitating the New Media Seminar, my charge as Faculty Fellow for Technology-Enhanced Learning and Online Strategies shifted this fall to the Graduate Education Development Institute (GEDI). These are distinctly different, but also related projects. While the New Media Seminar brought together faculty, staff and graduate students from across the university to explore the intellectual pre-history of Web 2.0 (and yes, there is at least one wrap-up post waiting to hatch about the experience of working through Gardner Campbell‘s elegantly constructed syllabus with so many talented people), in GEDI I lead some of the university’s best graduate students in an interdisciplinary conversation devoted to contemporary pedagogy and the development of an individual pedagogical praxis for the next generation of higher ed faculty. Developed by Shelli Fowler, the course integrates theory and practice in ways that support the understanding and articulation of the how, what, and most importantly why of learner-centered teaching and course design for future faculty from Animal Science to Women’s and Gender Studies and everything in between.

We are about halfway through the semester, and so far the ride has been invigorating, inspiring, mostly fun, and not nearly as bumpy as I’d imagined it might be. While I have not been writing here as much as I like, I hope that will change in the coming weeks. Before last week’s session on syllabus design slips off the radar, I want to highlight some of the terrific work the group shared in class. Designing a learner -centered syllabus is one of the key deliverables of the course, and as we workshopped drafts of the “front-end” of syllabi during the seminar, the following gems surfaced:*

*As agreed, no names are provided in what follows, but if you recognize your voice and want attribution, please let me know. I would LOVE to give you credit.

Course Descriptions that articulate a topic or curriculum in ways that make the relevance and significance of the course clear and compelling:

(1) “Welcome to BSE xxxx. This class will be an introduction to the physical, chemical and biological principles of non-point source pollution. Non-point pollution as you should know is the most complex form of pollution to control due to its dependence on non-constant environmental factors such as rainfall and wind. As, future biological systems engineers, most of you will be at the forefront of understanding this complex topic; therefore your education as biological system engineers will be quite incomplete without learning the details of NPS pollution. If you care to check, you will realize that more than half of the BSE professors are involved in NPS research, in the field or computationally.”Akin

(2) “Welcome to Transportation Engineering Research and Analysis. In this course, learning how to be adaptive in tough situations is paramount to being successful. Being adaptive, means learning how to acquire new skills without fear of failure. After all, in engineering, developing new skills to solve tough problems with which you have little or no prior experience is a common occurrence.”

Succinct, ethically informed, and clearly articulated course objectives:

“To understand the needs of the dairy cow, and how to maximize her well-being, and how this affects different management techniques and facility design.”

Structuring learning communities by outlining the instructor’s expectations and approach to the course (note the range of options and tone):

(1) “During our first class period, we will discuss the importance of learning communities and determine what type of online community we would like to create. Options include a Facebook page, collaboration through a class hashtag, and blogging; I am certainly open to other ideas and suggestions, as well. The goal of this online community is to extend our class discussions beyond the classroom. As such, weekly contributions will be required (more on this later in the syllabus).”

(2) “I expect that you will show up to class wanting to learn environmental engineering concepts, techniques, and problem solving.  You will not just be a lump in a chair being spoon fed information which you will later regurgitate on an exam.  You will be learning how to apply concepts, not just repeat them.  I hope to engage you in learning through problem solving with as little lecturing as possible.  You will need to help each other learn the material, learn to use credible resources, and self-teach concepts in order to succeed in this class (and in engineering).”


(3) “The way I envision to instruct this course is by using a student-centric approach. In other words, you will be responsible for constructing your understanding and I will act as a facilitator or guide in the process of knowledge construction. This will require you to take charge of your own learning and be an active participant in the learning process. And this is why I would strongly recommend you to go through this document during the first few days of the semester so that we can discuss the course policies in the first week of class. If you think that one or more aspects of this document need to be reconsidered to help you learn better, I would be happy to take up a class discussion on those aspects and change the document based on mutual consent. Remember, the idea is for you to learn and I will be happy to modify the syllabus (or the instruction) if it helps your learning.”

(4) The course has an approach with the following characteristics: It values collaboration and collective construction of knowledge; Its evolution is based upon students’ weekly participation in class and in blogging; It is experiential, meaning that students will not only learn about the “designerly ways”, but also experience it in applied situation; Its second part (weeks 10 to 15) is applied, working as a studio-based class.”

Course policies explained so that the rationale for them and the connections to real life are clear:

(1) “Treat your emails for this course as professional communications. Professional email (email written to professors, supervisors, or colleagues in a professional setting) is not an appropriate venue for expressing anger, complex feelings, or venting about others. Instead, think of each email as a strategic career event that represents you and creates a permanent record of your accomplishments, attitude, and professionalism. Here are some guidelines that I use and expect students to employ:…..

Specific Examples of Learner-Centered Activities and Assignments:

(1) “Toward the ending of the semester we will be having an inclusive activity, which will require the application of learnt course material to solve the problem. Because the students customize this part of the course, it will depend on what area of genetics you would like to focus on. The crime scene activity will be completed at a forensic lab where we will analyze samples collected from a crime scene using applicable techniques learned in class. The other option for this inclusive activity is to help a beef cattle rancher to make critical decision for his herd. We will collect data on his farm located in southern Virginia and assess the environmental effects on the performance of his herd as well as to determine a mating strategy and by extension the type of semen he should purchase to artificially inseminate his heifers and cows.”

(2) “An optional team project is designed for some motivated students to challenge yourself and have hands-on project development experience. By participating in the project, you will be exempted from the comprehensive exam. But I can assure you that you would spend more time on this project than the preparation time for the final exams! This project will help you gain experience in building an IT system. Each project can be completed by two or three students as a team. Each team will go through different phases of a Text Analysis project, including preprocessing, analysis, implementation, evaluation, and report. This experience will not only improve your understanding of our course material, but also benefit you in the long run with regard to your future employment opportunities. Past BIT graduates’ experiences show that it is well worth all the efforts and time spent on this project. Please make sure that you are motivated before committing to this team project.”

There are many more fine examples, but this sampling gives a sense of the variety of approaches and innovation that made our discussion of the learner-centered syllabus so rich.  For those wanting more on the context for the syllabus assignment, the guidelines are here.

And finally….When I saw Shelli Fowler last week we talked about doing an “interview” on the backstory of GEDI and its wonderful syllabus. It may take us a couple of weeks to get organized, but please stay tuned.

Image: Ball, Round, Alone, Different (CCo Public Domain)

Almost back in the game

Last night’s GEDI seminar provided plenty of action and interaction, as we thought about various ways to engage the imaginations of 21st-Century learners, debated whether or not gaming might save the world (or condemn it once and for all), and concluded with an impressive round of Massively Multi-Player Thumb Wrestling guided by Jane McGonigal herself.

Our discussions focused first on the kinds of pedagogies and tools we might use to build in more play and gaming into class projects and experiences, and then shifted to a more meta-level inquiry about the challenges of motivation in the broader context of the costs and purposes of higher education (inspired by this especially nuanced reflection on Ortega y Gasset).  I have drafted several posts in my head these last few weeks, but am still waiting for the mental space and clarity I need to produce something coherent enough to warrant spending pixels on it. (I just started Helen McDonald’s H is for Hawk yesterday, and imagine her observation that “the goshawk is like grace. It is rare and you never know when it will appear,” might apply to the muse as well.)

But as a preliminary step to producing something significant of my own, I need to give a shout out here to the author of Wide. Open. Learning, who assembled a wonderful array of resources and ideas about game-based learning.  This is not an exhaustive list, but rather a thoughtfully curated synthesis of reflections, suggestions and resources.  Whether you are a novice or expert, have just leveled up or never leveled up, this is a gem you will want to use and admire: game-based learning