Monday, February 23, 2015

Designing a Course Worth Learning 1

A woman is seated on the floor sorting papers and books, separating essential from nice to know stuff.
Selecting content? 
Over the next few weeks or months, my goal is to reflect on what and how I think as I design (big and small, d/Design) UNIV 291 in the roles of an instructional designer and instructor. There are many design decisions to consider. But there are a few BIG questions I must address. Uppermost in my mind is a question I borrow from David Perkins, a scholar I greatly admire for his ideas on thinking, teaching/learning, and clarity of thought.

With only 8 weeks for a summer online elective course, a big question I have is "What is worth learning?" [If there are things worth learning in a course of study, there are also some things we have to let go of, writes Perkins.]

A related question came in the form of an invitation to have a discussion with graduate students:
How do instructors "select content" for a course? 
Content means different things to teachers who adopt different pedagogical approaches. From the connectivist POV, content is external, constantly changing and interpreted (Larson & Lockee, 2014). In my course, we (my students and I) will build a network of knowledge resources together. One of the ways is to use a Diigo group bookmarking site.

Back to the main goal of my post, my response to the first question drives
  • the core questions I will explore in the course with my students,
  • what I will include in my course sessions (hence answering the second question), and
  • the assessments I will design to gauge what is being learned, or not learned, how students are learning, etc. 
In his latest book, Future Wise, Perkins (2014) describes a scenario where a smart-alecky student raises his hand to ask, "Why do we need to know this?" Therein lies the counterpart (or counterpoint?) to Perkins' question of what's worth learning. Indeed, as instructors, we hope to avert the occurrence of such instances, albeit astute.

As I ponder this key question (what's worth learning), I thought about the more than two decades of formal schooling I've had and what of it has remained in my life.

1. Most of the academic content I've learned are stored in long-term memory. What counts as active knowledge are what I use daily -- some theories, strategies and heuristics I may refer to for design thinking and problem solving.

2. What has lingered over the years and used persistently are skills of reading, writing, thinking (problem-solving, metacognition), communicating, and relating to people.

3. The early years of learning more than one language and culture and of avid reading and journaling have been augmented by specialized learning in my later years of formal schooling. These practices have morphed into and assumed 21st century forms -- blogging and e-reading extend what I learned from my early years. These practices are a result of my metacognitive awareness and responses.

4. In graduate school, certain values and attitudes were reinforced; discipline, parsimony in writing and precision of thought. In the presence of my mentors, I absorbed via osmosis and observation abstract concepts such as their approach to research and teaching. To this day, what they taught and modeled for me are ideas I still implement in my life -- the knowledge and practice of research, scholarly writing, mentoring, teaching, and service.

All these have remained. How then do these disparate thoughts help me in crafting a course that is worth learning? Here are some preliminary thoughts based on my pedagogical approach to teaching and learning:

  • How will I frame the course topic(s) so that it is generative and makes as many connections as possible to what matters in learners' lives?
  • As a thinking-centered course, what context(s) will I set the course in to help them develop understanding of visible thinking and visible learning? Learning doesn't take place in a vacuum (Perkins, 2009).
  • What do I want learners to understand when they finish the course? What do I want learners to get better at doing? What will learners construct an understanding of? (This has been somewhat articulated in my syllabus 1.0.)
  • How will they actively explore, inquire, argue, and construct their understanding of the topic?
  • What topics will the learners build a network of external knowledge sources on?

Let's see how these macro-level questions will guide me further in course design.

Meanwhile, at the micro design level, I've been working on the course site header and trying to pick the best theme, course site layout, and navigation for the site.

Do you think the header works? Till the next post.

Homepage of UNIV291 summer 2015 course
Homepage of UNIV291 summer 2015 course


Laura Gogia said...

Hi Yin!

What a wonderful post, thank you for this in-depth reflection!

I think you are right with your recommendations to read and set an advanced organizer/agenda if your goals are as you stated them. That being said, look at what you wrote:

"Where could I chip in and how do I answer some of these questions posed at me which didn't seem very related to the quotes I had pulled out? Is this my singular experience? How did the other participants who were not involved in the planning of the event feel? Had their previous discussions prepared them differently for this event?"

How WONDERFUL! You, as a student, were trying to figure out how you could help other students ("chip in"). You were disoriented by different perspectives, wondering why they were reading things certain ways. You were feeling curious and empathetic. You then felt even more inspired to read the article on your own, later.

THAT was my goal. You win! You see, connected learning experiences aren't necessarily about the content as much as connecting with people, being disoriented, questioning your own perspective, and then taking all of that energy and driving towards deeper engagement with the article.

As I said in my post, this was an unjournal club, not a journal club per se. It has different learning objectives. It is used for different purposes. And it appears to have succeeded :)

Thanks for participating, thanks for your beautiful post and ...just...thanks!

Yin Wah Kreher said...

Well, I was wondering where the published comment disappeared to?! Voila, under a different blogpost! Hi hi, thanks for reading this blogpost, :-)). So let's talk about this "connected" aspect. I want to differentiate "interaction" with "connection". Interaction did occur along a few dimensions -- with content and with other participants. As for connection, I think I connected more deeply with the content than with the other participants because I was disoriented. I "interacted" with the participants but I don't think I "connected" with the participants as much as I did with the article (I spent considerable time AFTER the event reading it-- partly due to my lack of prep for the article and not knowing your community as much as you do. But definitely, you can consider this event a win because I learned considerably from it. Thanks again for inviting me! Onward!

Laura Gogia said...

In response, I would point you to Simon Warren's blog post - he and I had much the same reaction, although we did not interact much during the event.

I would also point you to an old article's of Frances Bell's about the true meaning of the word "connect" - so, indeed, I understand your differentiation that you are trying to make.

I believe there are dispositions at play here that make some people more open to true connection in these forums than others - and I have thoughts on those and I've outlined extensively in my dissertation, because those are the dispositions I think we need to promote in connected learning environments.

But also there are situational factors at play, too. Some days, some forums, some'll do it for you or it won't. Sometimes, I wonder if getting too caught up in the content makes it more difficult to do the sorts of activities Simon commented on his his post. Hard to say. I plan on continuing to try, though.

Anonymous said...

Hi Yin, just read this post thanks to Laura Gogia. Love the questions you pose which runa long similar lines to my own in recent reflections on a course i coordinate (see In response to your question regarding interaction/connection you might be interested in ENACTION. This is drawn from the neurophenomoonological approach developed by Francisco Varela and others ( You might find it interesting. I am trying to write something just now that uses this to look at learning in a pharmacology lab practical.

Yin Wah Kreher said...

Thank you, thank you, Laura and Simon! Lots more to investigate and read up! ENACTION is new to me! I was trying to differentiate interactions, which can run along a spectrum of depth of engagement. BUT before I go any further, I will read up the articles you and Laura have shared with me. Let me see what I find! Ciao!