April 4, 2009

Wired Campus (repost): Still Moving From Teaching to Learning

repost of Wired Campus guest blog, March 12, 2009: Randy Bass and Bret Eynon

It has been almost 15 years since Robert Barr and John Tagg published a well-circulated article in Change magazine claiming that we were in the midst of a paradigm shift from “teaching to learning,” set to transform the ways we designed, delivered, and evaluated undergraduate education.

Fifteen years and a next-wave Web later, we are clearly a good piece down that road. Yet this shift leads us to a new set of challenges.

A key to this change is shifting the unit of analysis from blocks of information delivered through courses to something quite different, namely the development of the learner over time, inside and outside the classroom. That has implications for how we design courses, how we count faculty load, how we choose campus technologies, even how we define the curriculum.

It’s telling that we don’t even really have a good word for the part of the curriculum that encompasses some of the richest integrative activities, such as undergraduate research, study abroad, internships, and service learning. “Extra-curriculum” doesn’t seem quite up to the task anymore. The National Survey of Student Engagement calls these activities “high impact activities,” a category that also includes some course-based learning, like first-year seminars. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Something much bigger is going on here.

In his new Academic Commons essay, Michael Wesch, the digital ethnographer from Kansas State, frames the shift this way: “I like to think that we are not teaching subjects but subjectivities: ways of approaching, understanding, and interacting with the world.”4 Subjectivities, in Mr. Wesch’s evocative phrase, “involve an introspective intellectual throw-down in the minds of students.” We saw signs of this shift from “subjects to subjectivities” everywhere in our work on the Visible Knowledge Project, where faculty at all kinds of institutions looked closely at how students learned in the interplay with new media pedagogies.

What emerged from this work was a picture of learning that drew our attention to a series of intermediate thinking processes that characterize flexible thinking, processes that digital media are especially good at making visible. This includes such things as how students work through difficulty, consider alternative pathways to solve problems, speculate about ideas, and argue with one another about meaning. These kinds of thinking processes turn out to be much more than just cognitive. Motivation, confidence, fear, one’s sense of identity, experience, as well as formal knowledge all come to bear on them.

Recognizing all this about learning raises significant challenges. It implies that our earnest but often fragmented efforts at thinking about our curricula are not sufficiently broad to live up to our aspirations about the way the pieces should all fit together. It also implies that technologies built around isolated “courses” may ultimately be of limited value in a learning paradigm. And it means that we need to do much more experimentation with learner-focused technologies and pedagogies if we’re going to cultivate Mr. Wesch’s subjectivities.

In our next blog post we’ll expand on these changes in learning and the integrative technologies that might help advance them.

April 4, 2009

Wired Campus (repost): We Need R&D for Teaching With Technology

repost of Wired Campus guest blog, March 9, 2009: Randy Bass and Bret Eynon

When it comes to innovations in teaching and learning, higher education seems like the last to know and the slowest to respond. In every other way, we push at the frontiers of knowledge, ask critical questions, take risks. In all other realms of research, practices of peer review, dialogue, accountability, and replication engender innovation. Why is it the opposite for teaching and learning?

The problem is that we have no tradition of connecting the edge to the center, no established practices that enable us to turn the individual breakthrough into something more than idiosyncratic. We have little capacity to understand the potentially transformative quality of even small innovations. In our 20 years of working with teachers of all kinds, this never seemed more true to us than now, or more urgent. It has never seemed more important to cultivate the idea of “R&D” for teaching and learning.

This requires at least four shifts in thinking and action.

First, throw out old assumptions about diffusion of innovation, early adopters, and mainstream faculty. Professors who teach with what might look like traditional pedagogies now themselves might be active bloggers in their own discipline. What might look like small implementations with new social applications can have a significant impact on student experience-even if they don’t showcase as models. We need to stop thinking of “innovation” as one half of a binary, something that is either present or absent.

Second, we need to recognize that learning has expanded far beyond what higher education can handle at the moment. This is the phenomenon we have called invisible learning, the rise of those dimensions of learning that are undervalued in higher education: emotional and affective dimensions, risk taking, uncertainty, confidence and motivation, personal identity, and the critical roles they play in cognitive and intellectual development.

Third, we must create communities within institutions that truly engage experimentation in the context of inquiry and systematic improvement. Every campus should have its own R&D processes that nurture transformative practices. Every campus should be asking what it means to create such a space. How can structures of accountability nurture creativity?

Fourth, we need to engage new social tools to develop a culture of knowledge building around teaching and learning. That means letting go of 20th-century models for what the scholarship of teaching and learning might look like and thinking about how local expertise on teaching can become the basis for shared open educational resources. Similarly, we need to figure out how research on teaching and learning can be made accessible to practitioners as part of a day’s work.

In our next blog posts, we will expand on each of these areas.

March 30, 2008

where gen ed matters

I was very fortunate to spend some time this week at Hostos Community College in the Bronx, talking with faculty there about learning, general education, and syllabus design, hosted by Provost Daisy Cocco De Filippis. Hostos Community College is just celebrating its 40th anniversary, but its revision of general education is quite new. General education gets varying amounts of attention in different kinds of institutional contexts. We are wrestling with our general education program at Georgetown now, trying to rethink its purpose and shape. I found Hostos’ attention and approach to general education inspiring. Most important is the pervasive sense of commitment. As the Committee puts it, “General education is our faculty’s promise to our students.” You can see this commitment in the gen ed materials that they have on the Web, beginning with the gen ed brochure which spells out the 19 skills and dimensions (“goals”) of the gen ed program that infuse the actual course requirements.

These goals are then identified across the usual general education courses, so students can chart their way. A course is supposed to identify only those goals that it truly addresses. And by addresses means “assesses.” As Carl Grindley (English) told me (I’m paraphrasing), “we are only supposed to include goals that we actually assess; and we are supposed to assess only those objectives which we have identified for the students.” I imagine that happens unevenly at Hostos as it would anywhere (it always looks better to an outsider). But what impressed me was the spirit of transparency: build enough consensus among faculty to have common ground, make your thinking visible to everyone, including new faculty. And then let students in on the secret. Part of the latter includes a multimedia contest for students to do creative work around “What Gen Ed means to me.” It also includes taking seriously the AAC&U principle of liberal education to “give students a compass.” In this case through a “mapping tool” that helps student chart which courses meet which goals. (Obviously, this is only one meaning of the “compass” metaphor–but it is a good start!).

In my workshops there at Hostos we were exploring the idea of general education competencies. It was an occasion for me to further explore the applicability of threshold concepts to higher education settings in the U.S. As an advance reading, the faculty had read Meyer and Land’s 2003 essay on “Threshold Concepts.” Of course in the U.K and Canada, the idea threshold concepts has raised quite a lot of interest; but this work is little known in the U.S. up to this point. I have been exploring the applicability of threshold concepts in my work recently, and have begun to introduce it into my presentations and workshops when I visit places.

My trip to Hostos became an occasion to explore the applicability of threshold concepts to thinking about a general education program and its goals. If one looks at the 19 gen ed goals at Hostos (which look a lot like the “Essential Outcomes” from AAC&U, not coincidentally) one sees a set of skills and abilities that characterize an educated, if not also a liberally educated person. Threshold concepts on the one hand are the conceptual cross-hatch to this list of abilities: liberal education requiring both concepts and abilities. What I find so appealing about threshold concepts the way that Meye and Land elaborate them, and others are exploring them (see for example this year’s conference on threshold concepts in Kingston, Ontario), is the proposition that some concepts are so fundamental that they cannot be looked at merely as “concepts” to be absorbed. Rather, threshold concepts change the way we think about a field, the way we talk about a subject, and in some cases the way we act as a member of a community of practice engaged in a way of thinking. Once you start to understand threshold concepts as “liminal spaces” (as Meyer and Land put it) you can start to see the ways that knowledge (concepts) and skills/abilities (esp as liberal education outcomes) can start to connect.

We only scratched the surface of these possibilities when I was at Hostos. There is much to explore. I believe these connections are crucial to the conversation about improving general education, as they help us past a series of impasses that have characterized gen ed reform for 30 years; and they build, potentially, on a lot of what we know about learning and expertise (to be blogged in future posts). You can only have these conversations where general education matters. I’m grateful to Hostos Community College and their gracious hosting of me to allow the space to begin to explore these possibilities.

January 27, 2008

New Website and Blog

After 35 years with my old homepage and website, I am finally updating my web presence with this new website. This includes a weblog that I will use to post occasional thoughts and track my projects and travels. I will also use the site to post resources that I refer to frequently when speaking and consulting. And I may occasionally post my photography and other trace evidence that I have aspirations for my soul.

Randy Bass

January 27, 2008

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