What College Courses Don’t Do

What courses rarely do is step back to help students understand why they are learning a certain subject matter in a way that gives them both insights into why someone else (i.e. their prof) would dedicate their lives to researching in that area while also giving them the meta-cognitive ability to take a much less specialized version of that knowledge and apply it elsewhere.

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Flipped From Passive to Active Learner

I recently attended a talk, “The Promise and Perils of the Flipped Classroom” by Jennifer Ebbeler, associate professor of classics at UT Austin . She discussed the challenges and successes of flipping her large enrollment (400+ students) course.  She raised familiar discussion points about the flipped classroom model, but the point that stood out the most to me was the student reaction. Ebbeler experienced resistance among students, so much so that she re-designed her experiment to better scaffold the students to the flipped model.

It made me realize that those of us (instructional designers, education technologists) who advocate trying more active learning pedagogical approaches and experimental methods tend to assume that the biggest roadblock is often the faculty. It is a lot more work with little institutional incentive to experiment with one’s teaching. But the students can be equally resistant to more constructivist models of instruction. And with good reason. It is a lot more work for them, too.

I’ve had similar experiences while teaching. In an online capstone course I taught most recently, I designed a final project option with a high degree of flexibility that I thought would be appropriate for the mostly adult learners in the course, but not a single student selected to design their own project. They all opted for the traditional research paper, despite the required number of sources and pages. It was easier for them to comply with stated paper requirements than to construct a project idea on their own.

The student’s readiness to use technology effectively, to produce knowledge, and to be held more accountable for their own learning is an oft-overlooked constraint. But I took away a few key points from Ebbeler’s that were good reminders of best practices:

  • Scaffold the experience. Ebbeler’s approach is a great one: she begins the semester with more traditional lectures (35 minutes or so), and then slowly asks students to engage with materials outside of class, and introduces more active learning activities in class. With the right guiding questions and regular accountability, students come to class more prepared to contribute and engage. By the end of the semester, the students are leading the discussion, without fully realizing the transformation that took place.
  • Provide feedback often. There are many ways to give feedback, and all of it helps to guide the student to develop the meta-cognititve skills to navigate their education. Low-stakes, objective questions (reading quizzes, clicker questions) give automated feedback that scales easily and provides regular checks for students. Modeling is another way to provide feedback. Take opportunities to model critical questions and valuable feedback for students.
  • Provide enough structure for success. With projects, create interval opportunities to give feedback and ensure students are on track. Two misconceptions among students regarding creative projects is that they’re easier (they’re not), and that they can procrastinate just as they might for a structured paper assignment (they can’t). So have students submit a thesis or proposal for review, and a design plan, to make sure they are putting in thought and effort throughout the process.

It is a journey for students to transition from passive to active learner, and it’s important for education technologists and instructional designers to be cognizant of how difficult that journey can be. But for those of us who put in the extra work to create meaningful learning opportunities for students, it is worth it to increase student agency and ownership.

The Value of an Instructional Designer

At Learning Design Summer Camp, a panel presenter made a rather provocative statement to the audience that, paraphrased, amounted to: anyone who teaches is an instructional designer. I think many in the audience (of mostly instructional designers) were put off by this comment, but for me it raised some interesting questions: What is the difference between what one does and what one is? What is the difference between the practice of a field or discipline, and the sum of its parts as understood by the practitioner?

As an analogy, I take photos. We all do, with greater ease and better equipment than was available to consumers in the past. And sometimes I even take photos with intention, with some focus on composition or lighting. But I would not call myself a photographer. Not ever. Not even when I think I’ve taken a great photo. That’s because the field of photography encompasses much more than just the resulting product. The photographer has the knowledge of art history and theory, the practice of considering all the elements important in a shoot, the experience of taking lots of photos and making mistakes, and the benefit of being part of a community of practice.

Similarly, the instructional designer is fluent in cognitive psychology and learning theory, practiced in the systematic approach to design, experienced in designing for different learning environments across disciplines and topics, and part of a rich community of practice. The teacher indeed designs instruction, with varying degrees of intent and levels of success, but I would characterize the act of designing instruction as being distinct from being an instructional designer.

But as the tools of a field become easier to use, and the practices easier to mimic, what is the role of the trained practitioner? Technology increasingly makes it easier to use previously difficult tools, and makes available information on basic practices of any field. The lines between the amateur and the professional become increasingly blurred. But it also creates an opportunity for practitioners to identify and communicate their value proposition. So, as LMSs improve and educational technologies become more user-friendly, what is the value of the instructional designer? I’ll suggest three strengths:

  • Cross-disciplinary. Instructional designers are trained to work across disciplines and topics, which allows them to focus on the form of the learning experience rather than the content. Many subject matter experts are guilty of placing too much emphasis on covering content as opposed to teaching skills. The objectivity an instructional designer brings to a project helps to clarify learning goals and distill what content is most important to cover to meet those goals.
  • Systematic approach. Instructional design is really a process. Whether one uses backwards design or ADDIE or another model, the instructional designer employs a systematic approach to every project. The process asks us to consider important questions that may be overlooked in traditional classroom teaching: What are the needs of the learners? What should the learners be able to do at the end of the course? What resources are required to develop the course/project/product? Was the instruction effective? The process enables the instructional designer to effectively manage projects, meet deadlines, and evaluate the efficacy of the learning experience against established criteria.
  • Experienced. For most subject matter experts, teaching is a small part of what they do, often in a narrow domain of expertise. The instructional designer, in contrast, develops experience across disciplines and practices design regularly, creating opportunities to risk and learn. They also can borrow the best ideas and pedagogies from different disciplines and consider how they apply in new contexts.

The best teachers perform their craft with intention, passion, and excellence. It’s just not instructional design. Instructional design is the confluence of theory, process, and practice, and its strength is in its relevance to different contexts. So the teacher that moved desks in the classroom? Not an instructional designer. And that’s okay. She’s working to engage her students, asking them to do something a little different. And we’re here as backup, if needed.