When We Build Obstacles Instead of Opportunities

photo credit: Swamibu via photo pin cc

I’m lucky. I work at a university that both supports and encourages innovative instruction. Right now, I represent my department on the 21st Century Classroom Initiative, a committee whose goal is to encourage faculty to integrate more progressive and cutting-edge pedagogical strategies into their courses. My department, thankfully, is embracing this push. Well, I don’t know if the majority of the faculty are embracing it so much as admitting defeat in the face of the unavoidable encroachment of the 21st century. But there are a handful of us who see this not so much as inevitable, as transformative–for us as teachers, for our discipline (which is not exactly the most appealing for today’s students), and for our students (who are forced to take our classes, which are their least favorite and most dreaded, i.e., writing, speech, and literature). One way in which we are transforming these classes is to offer hybrid versions and I was selected to create the hybrid version of the first-semester First-Year Composition course (the first half of a year-long course, which focuses on the basics of academic writing).

I’ve taught this course for two semesters and I will be teaching it again this Fall. And I’ll admit that my initial excitement at the chance to pilot an innovative (for my department) course has turned to trepidation.

This has much to do with the less-than-successful version of the class that I led this past term (and a little to do with the trepidation that I always experience at the thought of the unlimited possibilities of what to read and what kinds of writing I can ask my students to do). By the end of the term, the majority of the students in both sections had either dropped the class or stopped coming. Admittedly, those students who were left were saying it had transformed them as students and writers and many of them signed up for my summer short-term, second-semester (non-hybrid) FYC course. But they were a very small handful of the students who started the course, and I had struggled desperately with the large majority of the students (including a few of those who finished and embraced the class at the end). These struggles centered around several aspects of my design and vision for the class. I was trying out some ideas that I thought the students would see as relevant and real-world (I don’t really like these terms now because I have changed my beliefs about the validity of such terms as applied to higher ed. for reasons that are not related to my experiences in this class). For example, one assignment required first revising a Wikipedia article on the book we were reading and then authoring their own Wikipedia article on a blog of their choice (as part of the Blogs WikiProject). (If you’re interested in the rationale behind my decision to have my students write for Wikipedia, see “The Hows and Whys of Wikipedia in the Classroom,” “Are We Ready to Use Wikipedia to Teach Writing?”, “Writing for the World: Wikipedia as an Introduction to Academic Writing,” and “The Tenets of Composition Go Public”). As preparation for these assignments, I required them to work and write collaboratively to create a wiki on how to write for Wikipedia (as a way for them to both learn how to do so and to practice writing within a wiki).

At midterm, I was forced to abandon my design for the course because the resistance from students was overwhelming. I tried to clear the tension and find a new direction by asking the students to complete a midterm course assessment via a Google spreadsheet. I monitored the feedback in real-time and used it to establish a master list of the most common issues cited by students, which we then discussed in class. It became obvious that my vision for the class was not shared by the majority of the students. Left with no back-up plan and exhausted from the resistance I had been fighting for seven weeks, I contacted Jim Groom and asked permission for my class to participate in his DS106 MOOC. He invited us into the course with open arms, piping my students’ blogs into the DS106 site that week. I then turned them lose in DS106 with only two requirements: they had to complete at least one DS106 assignment each week and they had to read and comment on each others’ work. The rest of the term was smooth sailing, every student met my two requirements, and there were no more complaints or resistance (by this point, though, I only had a handful of students left in both sections). While the classes ended on a high note, this had much to do with Jim’s DS106 course.

The class was not a total disaster. Midterm feedback revealed that blogging and the self-assessments that I required students to complete for each blog post had positively impacted the students (even those who hated the class) in several ways, from changing their feelings about writing to inspiring them to keep blogging after the class ended. What makes my experiences so disappointing is the contrast with those I had with my first hybrid FYC class the previous Fall, which had been, in my opinion, fairly successful. Almost all of the students who began that class finished it, the majority who finished had made significant gains in their writing skills, and the students had embraced everything that I asked them to do (or at least they didn’t actively resist). The course had the same basic outline–blogging and working together in personal learning networks–but different reading assignments and writing topics (and no Wikipedia assignments). So, in preparing to design my Fall 2012 sections of the class, I’m considering why one worked and the other so miserably failed (because I don’t think Wikipedia has that much to do with it).

I’ve been thinking about these contrasting experiences for a couple of weeks now and the two main differences that keep coming into view are the different levels of immersion and student autonomy.

In my Fall course, I asked students to immerse themselves in our topic (the first-year experience). Everything that they read, discussed, and wrote focused on some aspect of this topic. We began the term by reading My Freshman Year by Rebecca Nathan, which gave us a good set of issues to begin exploring, everything from dorm living to freshman attrition to student apathy/isolation. Throughout the semester, the students researched and blogged about these issues and, as a capstone project, synthesized their research in a multimedia class presentation. The presentation took the place of the big research paper that my department’s syllabus for the course requires. This is an assignment that I have a lot of issues with for various reasons and students traditionally struggle with it for all of the reasons that I don’t like it (it often feels like an add-on tacked to the end of the course and asks students to deal with some complex skills, such as learning how to locate and effectively integrate scholarly sources and cite them using MLA, when many of them are still struggling with sentence construction, paragraph organization, and thesis statements). But my hybrid students’ presentations were quite well done and some could have easily been developed and presented at our university’s annual student research symposium (I encouraged some to do so, but freshman are rarely confident enough to submit and present their work); it was obvious that they really cared about their topics and had invested a good deal of effort into teaching their peers about them. I think the quality was directly correlated with the fact that the students had been immersed in researching, thinking, and writing about their topic for several months, rather than the 2-3 weeks normally allocated to the research paper, much as academics and researchers immerse themselves in their topics for months or years.

But these are teenagers, not professional academics and researchers. When planning the course, I was concerned that the students would become bored with reading and writing about the same topic for fourteen weeks, so I built a large amount of autonomy into the assignments. Students were free to address any issues related or relevant to college freshman, including those not addressed in Nathan’s book, and they could deal with as many of the issues as they wished, so that if they lost interest in one topic, they could explore another, and they could also develop a broad knowledge of the issues surrounding the freshman experience and, hopefully, identify the connections between some of them. The students focused on a wide range of phenomena, including the freshman fifteen; the lack of preparation that many freshman feel, in terms of both academic and life skills; social and communal life; the benefits of campus organizations and services; the clash of home values with those encountered in college; the benefits of diversity on college campuses; and why freshman don’t participate in class, just to name a few. Some of the students even voluntarily performed primary research, creating Facebook and Twitter polls and conducting the kinds of interviews and observations that Nathan had during her ethnographic study.

So, the key elements of the Fall course that I failed to carry over into the Spring course were the intense immersion in a topic and student autonomy in directing their own learning about the topic. Instead, I set up a series of loosely-related learning tasks with the idea that I was scaffolding the skills I wanted students to master. I thought that I was doing the pedagogically responsible thing–challenging, scaffolding, making relevant, working my way up Bloom’s pyramid. But in spending so much time planning and micro-managing the class and what the students would be doing in it, I was turning their skatepark into an obstacle course.

Learning isn’t a pyramid. And we shouldn’t be making our students build it or climb it or whatever else we try to make them do to it in the name of teaching. This is why my students enjoyed the DS106 class so much more than the class I had designed for them; there are no pyramids in DS106, just options between learning opportunities and even, if none of the existing opportunities are appealing enough, the option to design your own learning opportunity.

After reflecting on the mistakes that I made this past Spring, I have a better idea of how to avoid those mistakes again this Fall. I’m terribly bummed that my Spring students had to suffer through those mistakes. And I’m bummed that those who gave up on me missed out on experiencing DS106. And I’m thankful to Jim Groom for allowing us to visit with his learning community for a while. It reminded me about the magic of learning for learning’s sake. And I hope that someday I will build the kind of learning skatepark that he has. I’m trying.

The point that I hope others take away from my mistakes with my hybrid FYC class and my self-assessment is that sometimes being innovative can get in the way of learning, both your students’ and your own. My first hybrid FYC students taught me a lot about what students are capable of if we give them the space and the freedom to play. My Spring students also taught me a lot about the difference between challenging students and forcing them to jump through hoops. We need common goals for a course; but there is more than one way to meet them. Obstacle courses may make getting there more challenging, but do we want to challenge our students or do we want them to challenge themselves?