Threading a Four-Dimensional Needle

I’m following my colleagues’ footsteps (slowly but surely) in blogging about our experiences collaborating and developing the summer cMOOC of UNIV 200.  Among many other things (barring his disdain for Garamond), I share Jason Coats’s excitement for stretching conceptual space beyond our weekly group meetings to help continue mapping out what’s soon to come for the course.  I’m very lucky to be a part of a team of colleagues who care about enhancing student learning and engagement so much, and in unique ways.  So the more chances we get to see the intersecting and branching points of our work together, the better.

My goal for our work together on the cMOOC is to continue trying to find ways to engage students in the classroom: to get them to care about their work, independently and collectively, and to work together to make it happen.  It’s all-too-common that writing gets seen as something done in isolation with a fixed beginning and end, where the writer moves through all of the work alone, completes it, and moves on.  Drop the mic and walk away.  This is problematic for a course that privileges teaching the process of writing and getting students to understand the importance of this process when developing their own projects, both for the specific writing class (like UNIV200) and beyond. The problem, though, isn’t (necessarily) that such students aren’t engaging in a process of writing–they are. What’s at issue here is how process should be understood, and what it may be missing. Successful students can compile research and write fine essays while lacking any investment with the material, or the class itself, because they only want to get a grade and get out.  I’m sympathetic to this (it’s how I tried to operate in any stat class my entire life), and think that we have to be as instructors: some things just aren’t enjoyable for some people.   Though, we should try our best to teach process where investment in one’s own work and caring about other students’ projects are next to impossible to avoid: where students have every opportunity to always dig deeper into their work and can’t help but work together to see how and why they should, and how nothing is ever really finished because of it.

I know that I am not saying anything others haven’t thought before.  Though, I am curious to find new ways to achieve this kind of climate in the classroom and figure out more on how the internet can allow for such collaboration and engagement.  Jason and I have had a lot of success using online tools in the classroom to augment student collaboration and progress this semester.  We were already collaborating  with our respective courses, though particular interests were sparked last summer when we began thinking about how we could gamify UNIV200 in an attempt to make it more engaging and interactive for students–an attempt to show how research and writing can be really cool.  We started drafting outlines of what a gamified UNIV200 could be, and how it could look online.  Important premises were that students had to select an initial initial topic of interest we established (created around disciplinary focuses), and that they would work in groups throughout given these shared interests (who picked what).  We started meeting with VCU’s Center for Teaching Excellence, particularly with Joyce Kincannon  and Stan Anamuah-Mensah, to workshop ideas and discuss possibly platforms/media worthwhile to pursue.   Our colleague Jennifer Roudabush quickly joined the group and we began talking about how specific tools could be used in a total online setting, as as well as how to best deliver course information to students.   After sketching major portions of the course given the expected assignments and outcomes, we realized that (1) the course we were designing had very little to do with gamification, and (2) everything we were doing could be implemented in a physical classroom.

This spring semester has been a go at how a lot of it could work.  More on some of those things in the days to come.

I will say now that, from this experience, it’s very clear that we can build classes for our students that get them to work together to forward everyone’s thinking.  Students can use online tools and spaces to simultaneously build and be resources for each other.  They can collectively compile sources and notes for research.  They can map out ideas in cohering webs rather than foundational lines.  They can engage in a process of continuous connecting, conversing, and questioning.

Hopefully with this and the work this summer, we can get students to understand that their work can always be something more: something four-dimensional that can pave the way for new students to follow.