A couple of years ago, when I began thinking about the courses I teach as places where content is created and curated rather than transmitted and tested, lecturing was one of the teaching modalities I most wanted to jettison. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy lecturing, it just seemed that so little of it “stuck” — and what did stick often sounded parroted or parodied when it came drifting back up through the prose of a midterm essay. My lectures articulated my explanation and interpretation of historical developments I’d spent twenty years studying and thinking about. Did I think they were good? Yes. Did students get a lot out of them? I liked to think so. Did what they learned from them stay with them past the midterm? Doubtful. Was there a better way? Probably.
What are the implications for familiar genres as the mode of transmission and preservation evolves? We still talk and think about “files” within “folders” for many text documents, even though physical file cabinets and manila folders are on their way out. We process words on a simulated piece of paper and discard the rejects in a metaphorical trashcan. And “books” now exist in a range of formats, including e-readers, paper, and audio books. I do a lot of reading on the screen and appreciate the relative advantages and drawbacks of that mode of consumption. I love my Kindle and my Ipad for flipping through mysteries and PDFs, but paper between covers is still my preferred medium for serious reading and subsequent consultation of a text I want to know well.
I also listen to audio books while I run and have been enjoying Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens. A Brief History of Humankind this winter. There is nothing brief about this book (the full Audible version comes in at more than fifteen hours), unless you consider the scope of the project. Harari’s provocative examination of the deep history of humanity artfully interweaves larger themes about how homo sapiens came to dominate the planet with the specifics of that story by focusing on three particular tectonic shifts in the development and organization of human societies: the cognitive revolution, the agricultural revolution, and the scientific revolution. As a story of globalization, Sapiens, which evolved from Harari’s World History course, is an unusual and surprising blend of interpretation — an effort to find coherence in the story of humanity’s rise to world dominance, and of reflection on how that past might condition the future.
A couple days ago I listened to Harari’s discussion of the distinction between deterministic and humanist perspectives on historical change and possibility and nodded appreciatively at this observation in Chapter 13, near the end of Part III:
“In October 1913, the Bolsheviks were a small, radical, Russian faction. No reasonable person would have believed that in a mere four years they would take over the country.”
Since we were just getting to the revolutions of 1917 in my Soviet History course and spent most of the previous week discussing the prospects of constitutionalism in Imperial Russia after the Revolution of 1905, I wanted to use the eight minute clip this quote comes from as a jumping off point for discussing contingency and the goals of historical study in class. So how does that work logistically and how does the format of the audio book condition the way we work with this “text” in class?
Making the excerpt accessible to the class was the easy part. We meet in a Learning Studio equipped with several AppleTVs, so I used AirPlay to send the audio from my phone through the projection system. Instead of referring the students to a text they needed to read and then waiting for everyone to finish (it’s always tricky to gauge how long this should take) we all listened at the same speed and finished at the same time.
I was curious about how well, or rather how consistently we would listen as group. Individuals latch onto different aspects of a printed text, and helping students distinguish between the morsel they find interesting and the author’s main idea or analytical framework can be challenging. In the case of the audio excerpt, however, it most of the class seemed to “get it” right away. We spent very little time establishing “what the author said” and moved quickly to the issue I wanted to discuss — that causation and contingency are not just important, but that the more you know about a particular historical moment the more complex it becomes. We seek meaning in the past and connecting the dots that are only visible in hindsight is as misleading as it is appealing. So, making sense of how the Bolsheviks came to power in 1917 requires us to consider the messiness of the present of that moment — the traumas of World War I and the social and economic stresses that conditioned the series of political crises that helped position this “small radical Russian faction” for success.
It’s hard to say if this initial experiment with discussion based on listening to a text together has many advantages over more traditional modes of reading, but I will likely try something similar again soon. I think the slower “delivery” of the spoken excerpt, combined with the fact that we were all physically in the same space made it easier for people to focus on what they were hearing. I observed no multi-tasking and very little squirming. When we have a text in front of us it’s easy and often necessary to point to a specific passage. In the case of the audio book, cuing up a particular sentence is a bit tricky, but in this case I didn’t need to. Enough people remembered the main ideas pretty well and could clarify them for the folks who were confused.
I’ve noticed that more and more of my own “reading” has shifted to audio books and podcasts recently, so I’m interested in how we can use these resources in teaching. And if you haven’t had a chance to read or listen to Sapiens, you should give it a try. Whether you agree with him or not, Harari has an important message about where he thinks our past is taking us.
Winning the Great Patriotic War: The Soviet Union in World War II
Montgomery County Public School Teachers’ Workshop, November 3, 2015
The Fallen of World War II – by Neil Halloran. Both understated and stunning, this animated, data-driven documentary looks at the human cost of the second World War. The cinematic story-telling technique of this data visualization brings the staggering complexity of the war’s casualties into focus in unexpected and illuminating ways.
Seventeen Moments in Soviet History – Archive of primary sources developed by Lewis Siegelbaum (Michigan State University) and James Von Geldern (Macalester College) in 2002. I joined the editorial team as web director and content curator in 2015. This rich multi-media repository includes texts, images, video, and music. The site is designed as a window on the Soviet experience as ordinary people made and experienced it. The materials are organized chronologically and thematically. A short subject essay introduces the user to the materials on a particular topic. All of the modules in 1943 (as well as many in 1939 and 1947) relate to the war in some fashion.
Victory Day 70 — Interactive multi-media website developed by RT (Russia Today — a state-funded television network broadcasting in English, Arabic and Spanish outside the Russian Federation). Developed for the seventieth anniversary of the Allied Victory in Europe in May 2015, this site presents many beautifully-produced resources relating to the Soviet war experience to English-speaking audiences. Materials high school students will find especially compelling include oral histories with Soviet veterans and their children, an interactive documentary map, and a dynamic timeline of the Eastern Front, as well as posters, songs and key speeches from the war. (Site works best in Chrome.)
Restored film of Victory Day Parade, Red Square, Moscow June 24, 1945
The Battle of Russia from Frank Capra’s Why We Fight series
Gremlins in the Kremlin, Robert Clampett / Warner Brothers, 1944
And One Book:
Geoffrey Roberts, Victory at Stalingrad. The Battle that Changed History (2002)
Diggs Roundtable Presentation, Virginia Tech
October 26, 2015
Links for materials referenced below here
I am a historian – not of the cut and dried variety, but of the shades of grey and multiple viewpoints persuasion. I have always been committed to promoting active learning, critical thinking, and analytical writing in my classes and helping my students become good historians. I have always seen myself more as a facilitator of learning than a font of knowledge. And I have always tried to teach in a way that helps students make sense of the world around them and appreciate the experiences of people who lived in other times and places. These principles remain at the core of my teaching praxis, but have been augmented in the last three years by a series of epiphanies about the potential for particular tools and learning environments to amplify this kind of learning.
The project I want to share today uses networked learning environments and active co-learning strategies to expand and extend the reach of the course beyond the physical confines of the classroom and the conceptual constraints of traditional writing assignments. I’d like to briefly describe what it is and how it works, and then say something about what I like about it. Questions, comments and suggestions will be most appreciated.
A syndicated blog serves as the gateway to a hybrid course in which students author original research posts on topics of their choosing, using print materials, sources available on the open web, and databases provided by the Virginia Tech Library.
The main course blog uses a WordPress template with a custom magazine layout to showcase exemplary posts, direct readers to relevant material, facilitate discussion of the posts (via a “shadow” comment blog), and articulate the content parameters of the weekly digest (via an “editors’ corner” sidebar).
An editorial team comprised of the instructor and undergraduate alumni of the course curate the posts from individual researchers into a Weekly Digest. This builds peer-to-peer mentoring into the course design and allows the editorial assistants to further develop their web working skills and content expertise. A Twitter feed for the course hashtag provides additional social networking around the course content, and the “publicize” widget disseminates updates from the course to broader audiences via social media.
Students design and maintain their own blogs, which are syndicated to the main site. This format allows them to develop multi-media research projects (using images, video and sound as well as text), embed ancillary material, and document their sources via conventional citation formats and hyperlinking. They give and receive feedback on their work from their classmates, the editors, and the instructor through the comment function. They revise their work throughout the semester. At the end of the course their individual blogs serve as digital portfolios demonstrating their accomplishments in research, writing and web work. They comprise a key deliverable of the course.
In contrast to traditional “delivery” systems, this format positions students, editors and the instructor to create and curate content, thereby elaborating the course in a collaborative, accessible, and enduring medium. Blog posts are not just a key feature of the course, they are the course.
We also use Googledocs to support the course and help extend its reach. The class has a shared folder where we manage administrative details (such as nominating posts for a weekly “students’ choice” award, or suggesting primary materials to work with during class), and keep track of work done during class. A second shared folder gives the editorial team a work space where they can maintain records (of posts and comments) and consult (via Chat or Hangout) on the selection of exemplary posts to be featured in the weekly edition.
What students produce on their blogs conditions what we do in class:
The content students create provides a jumping off point for our face-to-face meetings. I don’t give set lectures, and I don’t lecture for more than twenty minutes per class. Instead I use the content created by the students to frame a particular topic or period. I help students see how their posts are connected and address the interpretive issues raised by them.
We also use class time for discussion, focused work with primary materials, and with databases. Having small groups of students working on a series of googledocs that I can see and contribute to in real time allows for a rich multi-lateral conversation about the source. I can encourage, query or correct as warranted and project a particular group’s document on the classroom’s screen if she wants to bring something to the class as a whole. Class sessions may also be devoted to “blog beautification” (workshops helping students customize and enhance the functionality of their blogs) and practice locating and citing high-value materials for upcoming posts. We also designate some classes as “make sessions,” where students produce digital artifacts such as interactive timelines, collectively authored blogposts or animated gifs illustrating a particular theme of the class.
Advantages of the networked learning community approach:
This course format puts students in charge of their learning and encourages them to pursue their own interests at the same time it stimulates collaboration and peer-to-peer mentoring. It engages students directly and immediately in the research process and the production of knowledge. I have found that student engagement with the material tends to be higher than in a traditional class setting, and it intensifies over the course of the term. Students gain confidence and satisfaction from producing longer, more sophisticated and better-documented posts as the course progresses.
Because blogging is required but not “assigned” (in the sense that the parameters of the posts are left quite flexible), and the individual posts are not graded, the focus of the course shifts away from evaluation in favor of more qualitative indicators of accomplishment (i.e. discovery of new insight, intellectual engagement with peers, enhanced interest and effort in understanding the subject, enhanced skills in critical thinking and analytical writing).
Finally, access to the course site on the open web amplifies the project’s impact, especially when visitors to the site comment on salient posts – often long after the semester has ended.
It is all here:
“The teacher who thinks “correctly” transmits to the students the beauty of our way of existing in the world as historical beings, capable of intervening in and knowing this world. Historical as we are, our knowledge of the world has historicity. It transmits, in addition, that our knowledge, when newly produced, replaces what before was new but is now old and ready to be surpassed by the coming of a new dawn. Therefore, it is as necessary to be immersed in existing knowledge as it is to be open and capable of producing something that does not yet exist. And these two moments of the epistemological process are accounted for in teaching, learning, and doing research. The one moment, in which knowledge that already exists is taught and learned, and the other, in which the production of what is not yet known is the object of research. Thus, the teaching-learning process, together with the work of research, is essential and an inseparable aspect of the gnostic cycle.”
Paolo Freire — Pedagogy of Freedom, p. 34
I share the widespread admiration of Freire for his indictment of the “banking model” of education (deposit knowledge in empty vessels), his commitment to literacy as a vehicle for enlightenment (reading the word to read the world), and his insistence on the integral connection between teaching and learning (the former needs the latter). I am captivated by his exposition via aphorisms that compel and provoke engagement: “There is no such thing as teaching without research and research without teaching.” And, “as I teach, I continue to search and re-search.”
Coming at Critical Pedagogy from historical contexts where the connections between education, creativity and political change were fiercely contested I imagine Alexander Bogdanov talking to Freire about the creation of a proletarian culture that would be free of the oppressive ideology and antiquated forms of the bourgeois heritage the Bolsheviks admired (as a hallmark of civilization) and sought to supplant. In Freire’s summons to action I hear echos of emancipatory projects committed to enhancing human dignity that stretch back to the Enlightenment and far beyond.
But for me, Freire’s acknowledgement of our historicity, our existence as historical beings – with all of the powers and limitations that implies is what makes his theory so complete – so all-encompassing – integrating both what is and what will be: “it is as necessary to be immersed in existing knowledge as it is to be open and capable of producing something that does not yet exist.” Here I find support for Paul Gee’s ideas about the challenges of educating for the future as well as Seymour Papert’s insistence that students become the subjects rather than the objects of education. And in this pithy assessment of the integral relationship between research, teaching and learning I find a succinct and absolutely convincing validation of the university mission:
“The one moment, in which knowledge that already exists is taught and learned, and the other, in which the production of what is not yet known is the object of research.”
It is all there. You can’t separate out the teaching from the learning from the researching. They work together as part of a whole.
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.”
(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)
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