Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Learning innovations: trails and badges

As many of you know, I'm an academic technologist. And while much of my time is spent documenting and assisting faculty with Sakai, our university's open-source course management system of choice,* I do find quite a bit of time to ruminate on other uses of technology in university coursework.

Many hours reading Barbara Ganley's blog, plus listening to Ganley and Barbara Sawhill at a couple of conferences, as well as my own experiences as a teacher have led me to conclude that the best possible learning is student-centered. That is: instead of just giving students an assignment that they must complete using technology (e.g. turning in a paper or taking a quiz online or setting up a wiki withtoo much structure already built into it), we need to offer students the opportunity to actually create something new and of actual interest to them--and to encourage them to use those technologies they find most useful and relevant. If that's a blog, great. If it's a film strip, so be it.

Some folks argue that college graduates should emerge from their years of schooling with not only a subject-specific degree, but also the ability to use such programs as Microsoft PowerPoint, Word, and Excel. The reality is the specific software students learn is less important than the process of learning to use a new tool--and learning to use it well. For example, just about anyone can set up a blog. But how many people can produce a blog that's interesting, thought-provoking, relevant, on-topic, and popular? And yet being able to voice one's ideas to a potentially broad audience, and to accept criticism of those ideas and to engage in discussion about them, is essential to success in so many fields of endeavor.

I think we need to spend less time instilling our students with technological literacy and instead focus on imbuing them with a sense of curiosity about the world around them and about the tools they might use to explore new areas of interest and share their thoughts on these interests.

How best to effect such a transformation?

Thanks to the Museums and the Web conference website, I was recently introduced to the concept of personalized learning trails. These are not necessarily physical trails as one might find, say, in an arboretum (though an arboretum would be an excellent place to apply the concept), but rather the paths (cognitive and otherwise) students take while researching a topic or a place. (There's a helpful diagram of the concept here.)

While faculty certainly could set up a trail for students to follow, I find such an approach stultifying as it suggests there's only one path to knowledge. I want instead for students to feel they are avid participants in the creation of knowledge. So next time I teach, I may send students out on projects that require them to keep track of their research and learning trails and to construct a collection of digital objects (existing websites or podcasts; original photos, video, or audio; interviews; bibliography; etc.) that others might use to learn more about a subject. In such a case, students are not only required to think about (a) how they found their resources, (b) which are the most useful to them, (c) which resources might be interesting and useful to other students even if they found them less relevant to their own projects, but also how to best represent this trail (or rather possible points on a trail) to others. Students would not only create traces of their trails but also create new digital objects to include on, and thereby extend, the trail.

In addition to asking students to seriously consider their sources and the process of knowledge creation, this project teaches some pretty serious skills that are transferable to the job market, including project management and digital media creation.

The next time I teach a course, I may use the trail metaphor and project, but I've also been flirting with the idae of a course "badge book" similar to the one developed by the Girl Scouts. To earn a badge, Scouts locate a badge on a topic that interests them (e.g. hiking, ceramics, or--yes--even oil). Each badge offers ten relevant activities, and the Scout must complete and document six of these. When I was a Scout, there were particular activities that were mandatory for each badge, and the remaining required number could be satisfied through a combination of elective activities.

While such a project certainly requires considerably more preparation for me before the course starts, I envision a course divided into three units, each of which requires students to complete a "badge" (although I probably wouldn't use that term). Each unit would offer students 7-10 possible activities, with several smaller activities that culminate in the mandatory activity or final unit project. I would either specify that students need to complete x number of activities in each unit or y number of points for each unit, with activities assigned points based on their perceived difficulty and time commitment. So, for example, a student who needed to earn 30 points might choose to do three simpler activities worth 5 points each plus the final unit project for 15 points, or one 5-point activity, one 10-point activity, and the final 15-point project.

Such an approach:
  • allows for students to explore areas of interest to them
  • gives me opportunities to check on student progress through the smaller activities before the larger project is due--and requires students to pace themselves throughout the unit
  • reduces the perception of risk inherent in learning new subjects and skills. Students might be not be stressed about contributing 5 points of effort to a class wiki because there's not too much risk to their grade if they goof up on the technology or form, while a 25-point collaboratively authored, group essay to be posted on a wiki might seem pretty damn intimidating to some students.

Anyway, these are just my first thoughts. I'd love to hear your ideas--including cautionary tales from similar projects you may have undertaken--in the comments.

* If you find yourself at a college or university that pushes a single course management solution, you really should read Mike Caulfield's excellent post "Enterprise Learning Systems Considered Harmful to Learning."

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Anonymous said...

So I didn't get to see the new jacket of the second edition for my own math book. What else now?

Distress suits me awful!!

Dean Dad said...

Based on past experience, I'd just say, "be careful." I once taught a course in which students were given a huge list of small-points assignments, and told they could do as many or as few as they wished, based on how many points they wanted to earn.

Apparently, many students heard that as "you don't have to do anything."

If I didn't use a monster curve, the majority of the class would have flunked.

If you have students with initiative, and you're okay with keeping track of the minutae of way too much grading, this could work. But if the students are underprepared or undermotivated or just not terribly mature, this could be a train wreck.

Lynn Bethke said...

As someone just emerging from 6 years of higher education, I think I would really enjoy an approach which allows for lots of choices and lots of customization. I'm equally frustrated by projects without choices as those which are completely freeform. Your proposal suits my learning style quite well.

Although, it could be tricky to balance the difficulty of different tasks. I would certainly be tempted to do those I considered the easiest, thus possibly not getting as much out of the class as I much.

grumpyABDadjunct said...

Fantastic post! In one of my courses I leave the final project totally open, which means there is a lot of hand-holding while students figure out what they want to do, and how (they aren't allowed to write an essay) but I consistently get wonderful, creative projects; the students even surprise themselves with their efforts.

I love the trail idea and think I may use it this summer.