by: Andrea Flores
In a recently published article Analise Shrout, a Post-Doctoral Fellow at Davidson College, describes her experiment in letting students design and run a new course called Death in the Digital Age. The idea for the course, which was interdisciplinary in nature, was prompted by her own research questions about what it means to die in the Internet Age given that so much of what is created has a digital footprint living beyond one’s physical existence. To achieve her learning outcomes Shrout chose a pedagogical design that gave students a more equal role in shaping the course content, collaboratively defining best practices for digital scholarship, and deciding on the metrics for success through a co-created personalized rubric.
What strikes me about this approach, much of which draws from the theories of andragogy, social constructivism, and constructionism, is the degree of agency Shrout’s students had in creating and structuring their learning experience. Given that my own approach to teaching and learning is grounded in these theories, the article prompted me to reflect on my own rationale for design choices in my work with T-127 students in the Learning Design and Analytics strand here at the Teaching and Learning Lab (TLL). The following is my reflection on our approach and the students’ response to the experience.
T127 Design Goals
Each semester the TLL team offers T-127, a project-based practicum course that provides students the opportunity to engage in the planning and creation of assets for online, face-to-face, and blended learning experiences. Students choose capstone projects from one of three strands: Learning Design and Analytics (LDA), Learning Technology Solutions, and Instructional Support and Development. Throughout the semester they are embedded with project teams to investigate new models of learning, evaluate and assess learning objects, and become exposed to emerging trends in the field. The primary understanding goals for students in the LDA strand are:
- The design of a learning experience is a collaborative effort that involves several groups of people (i.e subject matter experts, media and technology specialists, business and marketing, etc.).
- Designing a learning experience involves several different stages: analysis, design, development, implementation, and evaluation.
- The learning designer has to assume many different roles to design an experience (i.e. designer, project manager, advisor, etc.) and that planning is imperative in the process.
- The work is often ambiguous and uncertain, and the designer must be flexible, adaptable, and highly proactive.
- Designers have to understand why they make certain design choices and be able to communicate those rationales to stakeholders.
Learning Theories in Action
Similar to Shrout’s approach, the overall learning design for students in the T127 LDA strand pulls from several theories of learning, namely: andragogy, social constructivism, and constructionism. Since our students bring a rich skillset and professional experience to the course, giving them considerable agency and self-direction in what and how they choose to learn is both critical and mutually beneficial. However, because they are relative novices in the field of learning design, scaffolding and support is still needed as they grapple with new concepts, processes, protocols. Below is a brief description of these theories and examples of their application in T127.
Developed by Malcolm Knowles, this theory posits that adults learn more effectively when:
- they are included in deciding what they need to know,
- the learning draws on their own experiences,
- they focus on tasks and problems rather than content, and
- the learning experience is timely and relevant to their context.
Thus, the role of the “teacher” is more as a “guide on the side” rather than a “sage on the stage” who helps learners move towards more independent, self-directed learning.
Andragogy in Action: These concepts are integrated into the T127 learning experience in several ways. Students select from several ongoing projects based on their interests, abilities, and identified areas for growth and development. This gives them agency in deciding how the course could be helpful for them as well as drawing from their experiences and existing skillsets when contributing to the projects.
Once they choose a project, T127 LDA students develop project plans outlining the general scope of the project, mapping project outcomes, identifying stakeholders, and planning out a general timeline for project completion. Learning how to complete a project plan provides students with the relevant scaffolding they need to take ownership of an ambiguous project and make it more concrete and achievable.These plans guide students to seek out the information they need to complete their projects, as well as exposing them to basic project management skills needed in the field. In addition, by working through a project plan, students learn project management skills through application to a problem or task rather than simply reading about the relevant theories.
In addition to planning out their projects, weekly strand and smaller group meetings based on Meeting Wise protocols provide students a space to share ideas, ask questions, and contribute to meeting agendas based on their own needs. These meetings are initially run by TLL LDA staff, with students eventually being given the responsibility of planning and facilitating the meetings themselves. By modeling the meeting protocols for them and then handing over the responsibility, we scaffold the process of how to hold effective meetings, while also aiming to balance the typical tension (between providing agency and support) that often happens for those working with adult learners.
(Social) Constructivism and Constructionism
Constructivism posits that people actively construct knowledge from their own experiences and mental representations, and that new knowledge is added to this prior knowledge. Social constructivism further maintains that knowledge is not just individually constructed, but is actively created through interactions with others. Constructionism extends these ideas with the addition that people learn through the physical manipulation of the world around them.
(Social) Constructivism and Constructionism in Action: To capitalize on students’ experiences and existing knowledge, strand and team meetings are carefully structured to give students time to reflect on what they already know about learning from past experiences and from other courses at HGSE. Facilitation and guided discussions prompt them to make connections to their project work and further reflection is encouraged via e-portfolios. These meetings provide a rich context for students to solicit both group and individual feedback when they need it, tap into expert knowledge in the form of guest speakers, and gain exposure to multiple perspectives from different members of the TLL and the class. We also use these times as opportunities for them to reflect on how course content is directly relevant to their projects, further deepening their understanding of the topics covered in the course. Finally, through the creation of the deliverables of their project (one section of a modular learning asset and accessibility guidelines for a learning designer), they were able to show tangible artifacts of their learning which was then shared with the larger community for feedback and redesign.
Reflections on the Design
Reflecting back on the semester and thinking about the initial learning goals for this experience, some questions that I have for myself as a mentor for the students in our strand include:
- Did we achieve our understanding goals? What evidence exists to answer this question?
- How well did the learning design support those goals? Where can improvements be made?
Upon review of the student e-portfolios and reflecting on the work they had done, it is clear that our goals were achieved this past semester. The students that I worked with most closely both understood the collaborative nature of designing an experience through the meetings they facilitated, the guest speakers they interviewed, and the different people (subject matter experts, media producers, etc.) they had to collaborate with to complete their projects. More importantly, they also understood the impact of the work they did through direct or indirect feedback from others while working through the process. This feedback prompted multiple iterations, prototyping, and constant re-evaluation of their rationales for design decisions.
Both students went through each of the first three stages of the design process (analysis, design, and development) as they completed their projects, and evidence of their understanding was demonstrated through their reflections and capstone projects. One student, who worked on modular learning assets, demonstrated a clear understanding of the analysis and design stages, which I observed through reading her reflections on working with a subject matter expert and her completion of the course design document. Another student, who worked on accessibility guidelines, demonstrated her understanding through the nature of the questions she asked while designing her document, the design choices she made, and her final organization and content of the document.
Finally, both were able to take on the multiple roles required by a learning designer to complete their projects through the completion of project plans, SME interviews, and the actual design and development of their learning experiences. In addition, both students often commented on how uncertain they felt and how unclear their projects were at the beginning. It was informative to observe their progression through the semester and the strategies they employed to cope with that uncertainty, which involved deep reflection, knowing when and how to ask for help, and multiple iterations of a design.
This past semester, it seems our design of the experience worked well in supporting our understanding goals because it allowed novice designers to engage in the work of a learning designer in a safe space that, while having higher stakes than a normal classroom experience, still allowed them to make mistakes, grow, and learn. Some areas for improvement might be to reduce some of the deliverables to lighten the cognitive load on the students and allow them to focus and give them more time for reflection and thought. I would also like to provide additional structure for them through additional models, and short tutorials to help alleviate some of their anxiety around the ambiguity of the projects.