Another dot in the blogosphere?

Posts Tagged ‘design

I have grabbed every opportunity to run courses or workshop series like studio sessions.

If you need to know what studio teaching and studio-based learning are, I recommend these resources:

My most recent ventures with this approach were a series of academic writing workshops for teachers and a postgraduate course on educational technology.

Both groups enjoyed a small number of participants: Six teachers and seven Masters/Ph.D. students. In terms of content, both were roughly even on theory (knowledge), practice (skills), and praxis (theory informed and authentic practice).

One way to imagine studio-based learning is to picture novice painters. Learners armed with prior knowledge and previous experiences bring those to the studio to learn from a master and their peers. They learn in. They learn information and skills just-in-time and level up by working in groups and individually.

While in groups, they share (peer teach) and provide feedback to one another (critique). Their processes and products are made as open and available to others as much as possible.

A studio also affords individual alone time to be with their thoughts. This allows students to practice or reflect on their own, or to consult the facilitator.

Like a painter, a student in a studio must have choice in a project for evaluation of learning. The project must meet standards established early on and agreed upon. Like a painter, such a student needs to showcase their thinking (processes) and work (products) during studio sessions.

I have found it easy to conduct studio sessions when the circumstances align — class size, course coordinators who are hands-off or trusting, nature of topic, etc. I can do these even in the most traditional of institutions. However, it is the assessment that is challenging. I will reflect on one or two pragmatic issues next.

This is a quick thought dump. Instead of hastily typing some ideas down in the Notes app, I am recording some preliminary ideas for a possible curriculum workshop.

Content design
Serial vs parallel (vs rhizomal?) plans
Continuous vs segmented curricular trains

Time considerations
Using academic terms and semesters
Redefining the “pie chart” of time

Meta design
Strategies for sensing change
Change management

Other design considerations
Alignment, Assessment, and Authenticity

Mainstream schools are winding down for the end-of-year vacation and universities see this semester coming to a close. I am ramping up as I prepare a new course next semester.

I have lots of notes and resources, but they are linked by two principles that have guided my design and facilitation for almost two decades.

The danger of lectures is that they create the illusion of teaching for teachers, and the illusion of learning for learners.

The first is the focus on the learner and learning. Doug Thomas and John Seely Brown put it best in their book, A New Culture of Learning:

For most of the twentieth century our educational system has been built on the assumption that teaching is necessary for learning to occur. Accordingly, education has been seen as a process of transferring information from a higher authority (the teacher) down to the student. This model, however, just can’t keep up with the rapid rate of change in the twenty-first century. It’s time to shift our thinking from the old model of teaching to a new model of learning.

Teaching is neat. Learning is messy.

The other follows an issue summed up nicely in this tweet:

Closed access and administrative control are antithetical to learner exploration and empowerment. As difficult as being open and embracing uncertainty is, it is more rewarding in the long term.

I experienced something recently that reminded me how fallible basic instructional design (ID) is.

There is an agency that requires its potential hires to take one module and quiz as part of its selection process. Some organisations opt to do this and this might be helpful if they are selecting for quiz-smart hires.

But the issue is not about the predictive reliability of this move. I discovered that one page out of the reading material was missing, and as a result, two out of the ten quiz questions were unanswerable without some Googling.

Perhaps the test was about dealing with the unexpected. But that should not be an excuse for poor instructional design, specifically, constructive alignment. One basic element of ID is this: You cannot test what you do not teach.

What ID — and much of conventional teaching — struggles to handle is how we cannot deliver all the information a learner needs nor can we test every eventuality.

We cannot even guarantee something adequate because the standards shift and the goalposts move constantly and often unpredictably.

So we have to teach learners how to think. I do not know of anyone in ID who can claim that the classical approach (of testing only what you teach) can adequately do this.

Yesterday I tweeted this image of a new classroom.

First, some context. I visited the classrooms of a brand new building at a university campus. As there was very little foot traffic just after lunch, I decided to use the classroom like a student might.

I sat near the back where the door was and faced the instructor’s console. I worked in the room for an hour to let the experience soak in.

These rooms were already reviewed by critics and blatant design failures had been remedied. Or so they thought. I spotted some basics that were not addressed. I share a labelled version of the same photo I tweeted to highlight a few design mistakes.

Classroom critique.

A: The instructor’s console was awkwardly positioned

I get it — the console faced the glass wall so as to not replicate a lectern behind which an instructor might hide. I am for the idea of tutors learning how to be better facilitators instead of just deliverers of information.

I am not for a design that requires a facilitator to swivel 180 degrees to use the computer or visualiser and then turn back to face the class. A facilitator needs to constantly have eyes on his or her class to send and receive cues.

Even though such swivelling might be intermittent, a more involved presentation, e.g., the manipulation of a 3D object using the visualiser, will result having in the instructor’s back to the students.

Solutions: Swivel the console, not the instructor; provide professional development on facilitation strategies so that a properly-positioned console does not become a pedagogical crutch, fortress, or hideout.
B: Glass walls led to glare and buildup of heat

This was a corner classroom and three walls were almost entirely glass — the front (as shown), the left (not shown), and the back (where the door was).

Bright sunlight shone in from the front and left despite the leafy curtain.

I could not take the photo by panning from or to the left glass panel because the light was so bright. The glare might be reduced as the plants grow more thickly, but I cannot anticipate by how much.

Our Singapore sun is not forgiving. The glass walls created a greenhouse effect so that I started to sweat even though I was the only one in the room. Granted I had just facilitated a workshop elsewhere and was in a long-sleeved shirt. But imagine about 20 undergraduates in t-shirts and slippers getting a free sauna.

One solution: Provide pull-down shades to reduce the glare and heat.
C: Harsh and clinical lightning

Perhaps there was a green cast from the vegetation outside, so the room was equipped with bright white light.

I do not know if these were conventional fluorescent tubes or LEDs made to look like them. They cast a harsh light that reminded me of a hospital waiting room or the floor of a manufacturing plant.

As I write this, I am in a public library that has off-white lights to make the environment feel warm and welcoming. Visit any modern café and the lighting will be similar, if not warmer.

All three places have this in common — students studying — but only the latter two seem to leverage on psychology to make the user comfortable.

The positioning of the lights also created glare on the TV screens (E). If the students are sitting in the room with the TVs off, they will see the glare from the lights and the windows.

One solution: Opt for warmer white lights.
D: There were shared writing surfaces only on the right-side wall

The other walls were glass, so there were no boards on them. This meant that half the students did not have such surfaces. A facilitator would have to resort to using just half the classroom for board work.

I am all for using computers, mobile devices, and open online tools for cooperation, but some things are easier, faster, and more effective on a board.

One solution: Provide white boards on wheels for the other learning stations.
D and E: Peripheral boards and screens

The boards and TV were surfaces and screens for projecting media. These are fine for group-based cooperative activities.

However, they are terrible for whole-class presentations. Students are likely to look at the projections instead of the speaker.

I foresee students or the instructor using the board D as the main projection surface. When they do, they will have to position themselves awkwardly between the console (A) and the board, and/or walk distractingly between them.

Solutions: Provide a clear and logical primary projection surface. This might tempt instructors to keep lecturing, but that is what professional development sessions on alternative strategies are for.
F: Six seats per table

This was an example of a group table or learning station. In the relatively untouched rooms I visited earlier, I noticed that there were six seats around each table. This room had just been used and some seats were actually missing.

A designer probably thought that rounded triangle tables could comfortably seat two students on each side.

A better designer of cooperative work would realise that you need a small but odd-number of students for such work to be more efficient and effective. Groups larger than five make for slower progress; even-numbers leave no member to be a tie-breaker during decision-making.

One solution: Create seating for groups of five.

Closing thoughts
I will not share the other design faux pas that were part of the room prior to the initial round of criticisms. I will just point this out: It is far cheaper and more effective to hire a consultant to prevent these issues from seeing the light of day.

I hold my tongue when I use the rooms I am assigned for workshops. But when asked, I share mostly positive things and highlight one or two key corrections if I think my hosts can handle it.

The design of classrooms matters. While they affect budgets in the short-term, they affect learners and learning in the long run.

One basic aspect of assessment literacy is question design. There are several principles in the case of multiple choice questions. The tweet below illustrates a few.

The options cannot be so obvious as to not challenge the learner. No one lives to be 500 and even a child without siblings knows a grandparent cannot be 5-years-old.

The choices should not just be about content and standards, they also have to be authentic. To avoid embarrassment and mistakes, it helps to think like and for the learner.

The Harvard Business Review (HBR) declared that Learning is a Learned Behavior. It is not wrong, but it is not completely right either.

We do need to learn how to learn. This is because we might forget how we learnt before, are taught in school to “learn” a certain way, and we need to adapt to new circumstances.

But the HBR makes a vague declaration that “learners are made, not born” and prefaces that phrase with a “growing body of research”. That research seems focused on adult learning and casually ignores child cognitive development studies. If you dive into the latter, you might learn that we are born as learning machines and we get more sophisticated as we grow.

The author has the right to focus on adult learning, but should make that clear at the onset. Learning is not only learnt, it is also innate.

Ignoring the latter capacity in children and adults is to offer an incomplete and inaccurate picture. This, in turn, leads to an interventionist bias, i.e., what must I do to you because you cannot help yourself?

If we realise that the capacity to learn is also innate, we take an observer’s perspective, i.e., how you do already learn and what can we do to help you do more?

Therein lies a “secret”: Educators know that they cannot think of themselves only as planners of lessons and vessels of content. They must also be designers of learning environments and opportunities.

Click to see all the nominees!

QR code

Get a mobile QR code app to figure out what this means!

My tweets


Usage policy

%d bloggers like this: