Learning Spaces As Making Spaces

Image courtesy of be you.
Image courtesy of be you.

The games-based learning MOOC is officially over, but for those of us who have chosen to pursue the Games-Based Learning Badge, the process of collating the work that we have done during the MOOC is still ongoing (you can see my portfolio, which includes blog posts related to the MOOC, some of my discussion forum responses, and my final project on my Storify page). This is not the first MOOC that I’ve taken, but it is certainly the best by far. Granted, I’ve only taken two, but the other, which I posted about last year, was so diametrically opposed to this one in terms of methodology and design that I can’t help but view the two that I have taken as existing at opposite ends of the MOOC spectrum: the worst kind of open online learning that MOOCs (far too often) represent and the best kind of open online learning that MOOCs can (far too rarely) realize.

There are several aspects of the GBL MOOC that, for me, made it so much better than my previous MOOC experience, among them the constructivist and connectivist pedagogical philosophies that underpinned every aspect of the MOOC’s design. An especially important outcome of the course was the fact that I came away not only having learned something new and connected with people with whom I can continue to share ideas and learning experiences, but that I also came away with a tangible piece of usable pedagogical work: the games-based learning project. For, as much as it was a space (or, rather spaces) in which to learn, share, hack, and play, the MOOC was also a space in which to make.

Over the past few semesters, I have found this philosophy of the classroom as makerspace bleeding over more and more into my own course designs and, most recently, into my presentation and workshop designs as well. In several of my classes, I have eschewed standardized or even open-ended final exams for student-designed projects and research slams. And my students have whole-heartedly embraced the change. So I’ve begun to consider how I might integrate making into the day-to-day learning, rather than just isolating it within the end-of-term project. While doing so will require sacrificing some of the directed learning time, based on the quality of work and level of engagement that my students have demonstrated in their final projects, it’s a sacrifice that I think will be worth it.

One option is the 20% Project. This method gives students 20% of their in-class time to work on a learning project that they choose and design themselves. I’m already doing something similar in my Graphic Novel class this term. Because we meet for 2 1/2 hours each day, I am allowing students 30 minutes of class time to work on their final projects. This gives them the opportunity to conference with me and to seek advice, ideas, and feedback from their peers. But the 20% Project is typically an ungraded, strictly learning-for-the-sake-of-learning-and-having-fun endeavor, so for future classes, I may have students choose between an ungraded 20% project and a formal final exam or an ungraded 20% project and a graded final project that takes the place of a formal final exam. I think it will be interesting to see how students respond to these options.

I’m also looking for ways to turn regular in-class activities into opportunities to make. This term, my Graphic Novel students spent the first two days of class reading and discussing Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics. Instead of traditional reading quizzes, I had them complete various drawing assignments that would demonstrate that they had read the assigned chapters and understood the concepts covered in them. For example, in order to demonstrate understanding of representation, I had students draw realistic, iconic, and symbolic representations of themselves. To demonstrate understanding of closure, I had them draw a two-panel comic that represented either a subject-to-subject, aspect-to-aspect, scene-to-scene, moment-to-moment, or action-to-action transition. The students are working in small groups to teach the graphic novels we are reading this term and I have left the design of each instructional session completely up to them. So far, each instructional team has integrated some type of maker activity into their lesson. The group teaching Watchmen had everyone create a multi-panel comic that might be written if superheroes were an everyday reality, and then held a competition for the best set of panels. The instructional team for V for Vendetta asked everyone to design their own political activist/vigilante mask. It’s evident from the fact that each instructional team has created some type of activity focused on making and the enthusiasm with which the class approaches their maker projects that students enjoy the challenge of making something that represents their individual talents, ideas, and knowledge.

Seeing the success of creating makerspaces for learning in the classroom has inspired me to reconsider how I design and deliver presentations and workshops. I have the opportunity this summer to lead two workshops for k12 teachers and  I am designing each to be not just a chance to learn about new methods and technologies, but to use what they learn to actually design a unit or an entire curriculum with help and feedback from each other. So, those attending my workshop on immersive role-play will be provided with an outline of the questions I used and the steps that I took to create a class based upon immersive role-play, and will have time during the workshop to brainstorm and refine their own immersive role-play unit.

As I have written before, I see the desire to make as being a natural aspect of the hyper-digitalized  informationalism that characterizes our students’ everyday experiences:

Analogous to (digital) quilting bees, Maker Faires recognize and respond to several aspects of 21st century socioeconomics and the attendant cultural shifts: the need/desire to collaborate, co-op, share, create, and connect with each other and available resources in both new (digital) and old (humanist) ways. In a hyperdigitalized world, authenticity has become a scarce–or at least more difficult to locate–resource, so it seems only natural that people have begun to value the work of making something both beautiful and useful from raw materials.

When we turn learning spaces into opportunities to make, the dichotomy between digital and analog, virtual and real, hi-tech and low-tech no longer matter as much as we like to pretend they do. For students (and teachers), it’s not the tools that matter, it’s the opportunity to use those tools to create something new. What they create doesn’t necessarily have to be useful and it certainly doesn’t have to be graded or to “count” for something. It just has to be something that didn’t exist before. And would have never existed if you had not allowed them the space and the time to make it.

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Goodbye, Hello: In Which I Look Backwards Before Going Forwards

photo credit: Avard Woolaver via photopin cc
photo credit: Avard Woolaver via photopin cc

The Fall semester has come to an end and the Spring term is about to begin. Each new term brings with it heightened anticipation as we feverishly map journeys of discovery for our students and blueprint what we hope will be engaging and challenging learning environments. It is a strange season of flux as we look forward with one eye and backward with the other, reflecting on what worked and what failed before so that we know what to recycle, repurpose, and reconsider and what to chalk up to experience. We share much with gardeners, who spend the fallow season plotting and planning, first allowing space for the necessary and the reliable, then squeezing in some untried novelties, deciding what needs to be rotated to revitalize the soil, prepping the ground, sowing the seeds, then waiting patiently for the fruits to flower, tending, weeding, brooding, second-guessing, nurturing, assessing.

Before finalizing my Spring classes, I wanted to reflect, in writing, on some of my more experimental practices from the Fall, especially those about which I promised to post follow-ups.

In “Flips, Cartwheels, and 360’s? Oh my?” I posed the question: “What if I asked my hybrid FYC students to help design a 21st century university?” I wondered if they would be willing or able to accept my challenge. I’m happy to report that they accepted it wholeheartedly and did not disappoint me or the 21st Century Classroom Initiative Committee members who attended their presentations (more on those in a bit). I handed the class a real and intensely relevant problem to solve with no conditions or requirements attached (other than the fact that they had to be able to explain their work in 15 minutes or less). Some of the solutions that students developed were phenomenally outstanding. You can see a sampling of what they came up with at Storify.

In a subsequent post, “This Is What a Final Exam Should Look Like,” I shared my discovery of the research slam–part poster session, part poetry slam–and pondered the questions: “What if final exams looked more like [research slams]? What if students shared their learning with one another in the kind of interactive, experiential, small-group method encouraged by the research slam? . . . How powerful would that be?” Pretty powerful, I thought. And it was. Students arrived early and set up their presentations: a collage of tri-folds, laptops, brochures, and scale models. Small groups of students moved from display to display, as the presenters gave a 15 minutes or less overview of their project and answered questions from the audience. Members of the 21st Century Classroom Initiative were also in attendance, asking questions, jotting down student email addresses, asking for links to presentation materials. I wandered from station to station, filming snippets of presentations and conversations. The room was saturated with voices–discussing, questioning, responding, laughing, debating, critiquing. After such a heady experience, I don’t know that I could ever go back to the traditional final exam–those bent heads; those cramped fingers; those flat, stale pieces of paper; that deathly silence.

In “I’m Bringing Paper Back (‘Cause It’s Still Sexy),” I discussed my plans to strike a balance between the digital and the physical in my classes. I had students digitally and collaboratively annotate one of the texts we read, but I provided hardcopies of their annotations in class and had students use them to develop discussion questions. We also practiced blogging on paper first and students responded so favorably that I plan to have next semester’s classes perform peer review on paper versions of every blog post. I’m slowly falling back in love with paper, especially after reading Jody Shipka’s Toward a Composition Made Whole (which I’ve blogged about a lot recently), and I think it will be making an even bigger comeback next term.

In “Hacking Assessment: Redesigning the Numbers Game,” I continued reflecting on my ongoing battle with assessment. I considered two kinds of assessment, in particular, this past term: peer assessment and contract grading. As I reported in a subsequent post, I ended up giving peer assessment a try in my Basic English Skills class with great success, so much so that it is the primary form of formative assessment in both of my FYC courses next term. Contract grading was less of a success, though that had more to do with my lack of clear communication than anything else. Despite providing exhaustive guidelines, on the end-of-term course assessments several students expressed discomfort with not knowing whether or not each criteria was being met as the semester progressed. On the plus side, I’ve only had two grade complaints so far. I plan to improve my communication with students regarding their progress on grade-level criteria and will provide them with assignment checklists so they can have a visual representation of what they have and have not completed.

In “Remediating Remedial Composition,” I expressed trepidation with some of the radical ideas I had for my Basic English Skills class. Overall, I think the class was a success. Quite a few students disappeared (as is unfortunately typical of remedial classes), but only 4 of the 18 students who finished the class did not receive credit for it. I had to drop the VoiceThread assignment (it was technically too overwhelming in an already tech-heavy class), but the blogs turned out to be very interesting (though not mechanically superior) and I discovered another awesomely invigorating collaborative writing method in the silent dialogues I had students complete in Google Docs (another novelty that will be added to my tried-and-true writing practices).

Overall, I would rate the Fall 2012 semester a success for me, but more so for my students. There were those stellar presentations in my FYC classes giving voice to college students facing a radically revolutionized socioeconomic future and needing a radically revolutionized learning environment to prepare them for it. My Basic English Skills students made great strides in pushing themselves beyond their comfort zones and relying on one another for writing support and nurturance. And my Oral Communication students went above and beyond my expectations as they created public service campaigns that not only raised awareness of important issues but provided a means to act on those issues in positive and impactful ways. I think I’m a little closer to a system of assessment that I believe to be both meaningful and fair. I’ve discovered some awesome techniques to integrate into my composition classes and am especially excited by those that foster collaborative writing practices. And from now on I’ll actually look forward to my final exams rather than dreading and rueing them.

And so it’s time to begin a new semester and a new adventure with a whole new set of experiments and discoveries to anticipate.

“Hoe while it is spring, and enjoy the best anticipations.” ~Charles Dudley Warner

This Is What a Final Exam Should Look Like

image by freeimageslive.co.uk – gratuit

I used to give traditional final exams, even in my First-Year Composition course. Every semester during finals week, my FYC students would sit in the classroom for two hours writing an essay. Supposedly, this was an exercise in assessment: by composing a full-length essay in class, students were demonstrating what they had learned about writing that term. But I began, a few years ago, to question just what this exercise proved–how much did writing an in-class essay show about student learning?

First of all, it seemed to be a contradictory assignment. I had spent an entire semester trying to convince students to spend time developing their essays–to let their drafts rest for a while before revising them; to proofread carefully, looking for one type of error at a time; to let others read their writing and provide feedback on it to help them see it through their readers’ eyes. And then, for their final, heavily-weighted piece of writing, I asked them to throw all of that advice out of the window and write an essay, from start to finish, in two hours, with no peer review and little time to revise or proofread. Did I have a legitimate pedagogical reason for doing this? To be honest, the answer is No. I did it because it was what everyone else was doing and it was what I was told I should do, as well. As recently pointed out by David Jaffe in “Stop Telling Students to Study for Exams,” traditional final exams are grounded more in tradition than they are in good pedagogy or the realities of how we want students to learn and what we claim we want students to take away from our classes (and college).

So, I began to re-think how best to use the two hour final exam meeting and to try out different ways of capping off the term with a demonstration of student learning. One thing that always bugged me about classes that required a research project (which, as an English student, was all of them) was the fact that no one, other than the professor, ever got to see the results of all my efforts. And I was always curious about what my classmates were researching and what the results were. Sometimes we’d talk about our projects in process, but the paper itself was usually due on the day of the final, so there was never any kind of whole-class plenary discussion of the topics and issues we had all been immersed in all term. What happened in our research papers stayed in our research papers. Using this experience as an example of how not to make the research project relevant to the course and to the students, I’ve experimented over the years with various ways for students to use the final exam meeting to share their research projects and what they have learned over the course of the semester with the class.

One semester, we had our own mini-symposium (mimicking our university’s annual student research symposium, which I had asked my students to attend that term), with students simply reading their research essays out loud at the podium. And as I’ve discussed in another post, I recently asked my first hybrid FYC class to turn their research projects into multi-media presentations, requiring them to articulate their written ideas in multi-modal rhetorical mediums. I think that both of these were fairly successful methods of asking students to demonstrate their learning while making that learning relevant to the course as a whole and encouraging students to take pride in the work they had done. But I wasn’t completely happy with either, as they both encouraged a kind of passivity on the part of the student’s audience, including myself.

Then, the other day this video popped up in my Twitter stream and, for me, it was an epiphanic moment:

I couldn’t help but think about what classrooms look and sound like during a traditional final exam. And even what my own final exams look and sound like, i.e., a sage on a stage (even though I’ve shifted the locus of power slightly by placing the students on the stage) with a glassy-eyed audience who typically respond with silence when asked if they have any questions. And I couldn’t help but to compare those classrooms to the one in the video (you can read more about the research slam at “The Unconference Strikes Back”).

What if final exams looked more like this? What if students shared their learning with one another in the kind of interactive, experiential, small-group method encouraged by the research slam? And what if I could join those moving from group to group, listening to (and perhaps even videoing) them engage in conversations about their learning? What if I asked them to post those videos on their blogs so that anyone could see them sharing and answering questions about their learning?

How powerful would that be?

Pretty powerful, I think. I’ll let you know how it turns out.