Course Philosophy

Course Philosophy

This course is designed according to my philosophy, beliefs, and experiences regarding what makes for engaging, meaningful, and lasting learning. Review the points below to quickly get a sense of whether or not you will enjoy participating in this course.

Toward Renewable Assessments

For some time now I’ve been critical of “disposable assessments.” An assessment can be characterized as “disposable” if everyone understands that its ultimate destiny is the garbage can. Take an all-too-typical example:

  • Faculty member assigns student to write a two page compare and contrast essay
  • Student writes the paper and submits it to faculty
  • Faculty grades the paper and returns it to student
  • Student checks what grade they received, briefly peruses any written comments, and then throws the paper away

(This example assumes physical paper, but the principles are exactly the same in the context of assessments submitted, graded, and returned electronically.)

A “renewable assessment” differs in that the student’s work won’t be discarded at the end of the process, but will instead add value to the world in some way. Take, for example, the Murder, Madness, and Mayhem assessments from 2008:

The University of British Columbia’s class SPAN312 (“Murder, Madness, and Mayhem: Latin American Literature in Translation”) contributed to Wikipedia during Spring 2008. Our collective goals were to bring a selection of articles on Latin American literature to featured article status (or as near as possible). By project’s end, we had contributed three featured articles and eight good articles. None of these articles was a good article at the outset; two did not even exist.

Rather than writing essays to submit to their instructor and then throw away, these students published them openly, where others will be able to benefit from their work for years to come. That’s the core idea behind renewable assessments like Murder, Madness, and Mayhem, or Project Management for Instructional Designers, or Blogs vs Wikis, or the DS106 Assignment Bank, or The Open Anthology of Earlier American Literature, and many of the other examples listed by the community here.

In many ways, I think the most powerful part of renewable assignments is the idea that everyone wants their work to matter. No one wants to struggle for hours or days on something they know will be thrown away almost as soon as it is finished. Given the opportunity, people want to contribute something, to give something back, to pay it forward, to make the world a better place, to make a difference. Few right thinking people will invest their heart and soul in work that is academic in the way that non-faculty use the term – “not of practical relevance; of only theoretical interest. The debate has been largely academic.”

It’s no wonder people hate homework so much. They don’t hate learning – they hate wasting time and energy and effort. Try to imagine dedicating large swaths of your day to work you knew would never be seen, would never matter, and would literally end up in the garbage can. Maybe you don’t have to imagine – maybe some part of your work day is actually like that. If so, you may know the despair of looking forward and seeing only piles of work that don’t matter. And that’s how students frequently feel. Your results may vary, but I estimate that the 20 million postsecondary students in the US spend over 40M hours per year on disposable assessments. Every year. Year after year. When time is being used so poorly at such scale, I can’t believe it doesn’t negatively impact society.

Replacing disposable assessments with renewable assessments goes a long way toward re-humanizing education, giving students a reason to care about and truly invest in their work. Without this broader motivating context, students are just waxing cars, sanding decks, and painting fences.

“You promise learn. I say, you do. No question. That your part.”

Your Learning Artifacts Belong to YOU

I like this concise summary: “learning occurs through construction, annotation and maintenance of learning artifacts” (Anderson, 2012). As you participate in this course you will have the opportunity to create a wide range of learning artifacts, including memes, videos, and persuasive essays. Because these artifacts are at the core of your learning experience, it is critically important that you own these artifacts and have ongoing access to and control over them. Consequently, all of the learning artifacts that you create for this course will be stored in a digital space that you control rather than a course management system. If you don’t already have a personal website running on your own domain, you should rectify that immediately (see the Course Technologies page.) You should demand and expect full control of all the learning artifacts that you create in this course and every other. If you’re going to invest the time and effort to create these artifacts, make sure that they live much longer than the duration of any one course and that they benefit many more people that just you.

You Should Freely Share Your Learning Artifacts

I have been impressed, over and over again, by how much additional effort, thought, and craftsmanship people put into learning artifacts they know might be used by others. As I said above, I believe that everyone wants their work to make a difference. But I also believe there is a positive impact that comes simply from making your artifacts publicly visible. As U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously observed, “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.”

As I will argue strongly in this course, education is sharing. If we’re not sharing, we’re not learning. And just as it takes two to tango, it takes two (or more) to share. If I walk down the sidewalk offering to share my french fries with anyone who’s hungry, but no one eats my french fries, then I haven’t shared with anyone. Sharing is an recursive relationship of offering and accepting. If all the participants in this course offer their artifacts but no one accepts them – reads them, critiques them, praises them, or challenges them – then no sharing has happened.

To maximize sharing – and by equivalence learning – you should openly license your artifacts with a Creative Commons license, just as I have openly licensed this course with the Creative Commons Attribution License.

Course as Campfire

CC BY SA Photo by Charles Dyer
CC BY SA Photo by Charles Dyer

Probably the most useful way to think about this course is as a campfire. A campfire does, of course, have important nonsocial functions (like providing heat) just like courses have important nonsocial functions (like conveying information). But the most important function of both a great campfire and a great course is the manner in which they draw people together. A good campfire is a thing around which storytelling, singing, and other social interactions happen. The same is true for the best courses – they draw people into arguments, explorations, discussions, collaborations, and even friendships.

Without a campfire all you have is a bunch of tents set up and people wandering around disconnectedly. The campfire provides a place for people to congregate and interact. The campfire appears before the singing starts. Likewise, the proper way to view this course is as a “place” for people to congregate, tinker a bit and build some learning artifacts, share, critique, and improve each others’ artifacts, and generally enter into relationships of sharing and learning.