Inventing the Classroom: Stories Faculty Tell

31 Jan

By Lauren Marsh and Kim Wilcox,
UMinnesota Academic Technology Consultants

From 2000 through 2013, the Office of Information Technology’s Faculty Fellowship Program (FFP) has provided more than 60 faculty the opportunity to participate in multidisciplinary learning communities that explored possibilities and good practices in technology-rich learning environments, produced scholarship in this area, and advanced faculty leadership around these issues. Applicants to the program were required to propose and carry out projects that entailed significant changes to a course or part of a course and that included educational technology.

This post focuses on the final, and largest, cohort of the Faculty Fellowship Program. Between August 2012 and December 2013, 16 faculty fellows from across the disciplines and several University of Minnesota campuses came together once a month while they imagined, experimented, succeeded or tried again, shared and encouraged one another to make significant changes in their classes.

(l tp r) Amin Huq, Amy Prunuske, Abram Anders, Joe Moses, Madeleine Kerr, Rob Porter, Jane Wissinger, Mike Aylward, David Husom, Keshab Parhi. Eric Watkins, Steve Wiesner, Mitra Emad. Inset: Cryss Brunner, Linda Buturian, Dana Lindaman.  Click on photo to read their bios.

(l tp r) Aminul Huq, Amy Prunuske, Abram Anders, Joe Moses, Madeleine Kerr, Rob Porter, Jane Wissinger, Mike Aylward, David Husom, Keshab Parhi. Eric Watkins, Steve Wiesner, Mitra Emad. Inset: Cryss Brunner, Linda Buturian, Dana Lindaman. Click on photo to read their bios.

In the aggregate, their projects afford us an opportunity to consider what we mean when we talk about innovation in higher education:  What is innovation in a college teaching and learning context? What motivates innovation, and how is it sustained?

Themes in Innovation

Innovation in the classroom either amplifies or disrupts signature pedagogies, which describe how faculty in a discipline impart to students the knowledge and skills they need to become proficient in the discipline (Lee Shulman, 2005) For instance, Shulman notes the case dialogue method of instruction in law schools, in which an instructor asks questions of an individual student, and the bedside teaching that occurs during clinical rounds in medical school.

On the one hand, signature pedagogies help us to know, practice, and impart disciplinary knowledge. On the other hand, they can stifle change: The embodiment of habit, they can persist even when they cease to meet the needs of students and teachers.

Academic technology is often the catalyst or lever to transforming practice and, sometimes, the practitioner. When we talk about innovating with academic technology we’re describing changes to what Shulman describes as the “surface” structure of signature pedagogy — the “concrete, operational functions of teaching and learning.” Of course the ramifications of technological innovation also may have impacts below the surface by challenging the assumptions and values that characterize a discipline (what Shulman refers to as the deep and implicit structures).

We surveyed the projects that our fellows undertook and catalogued a number of themes that illustrate how faculty innovate with academic technologies.

Refine Technology achieves efficiencies and reinforces best practices.

Example: A series of pre-lab videos that instruct students in lab techniques has the effect of making students more proficient in the lab environment.

Extend Technology manifests as new forms of literacy or professional practice that represent academic or professional competency.

Example: Students in business communication develop facility with new forms of networked learning as this represents a core (emerging) skill set in the class and the field.

Redefine Technology results in new practices, which might be experienced within a discipline as a paradigm shift.

Example: In the field of public health nursing, the traditional “windshield survey” is an initial survey that entails driving through a community and using one’s senses to learn about it and identify potential areas for investigation. New practices built around Geographic Information Systems (GIS) have students contributing data and observations to community maps, and have resulted in students communicating their results to practicing community health nurses. The use of cloud-based technology and social media has transformed this exploration of community health and infrastructure into an international conversation.

Transform Technology has the potential to significantly impact the role or identity of the learner/practitioner. This speaks to the moral, ethical dimension of practice and maps to the ”affective” dimension of, for instance, Bloom’s learning taxonomy.

Example: School leadership students, whose identities are masked and who enter the online environment with avatars that project different age and ethnicity (and other) characteristics, are invited to experience and reflect on the impact that agism, racism, etc. have on group dynamics and decision making.

Stories We Tell

The fellows decided to share their insights, reflections, and strategies via digital stories, collected in Stories from Faculty Fellows: Adventures in Technology-Enhanced Learning. This digital publication is part of the “Cultivating Change” series, which explores emerging practices in the academy thematically, while at the same time experimenting with and modeling new forms of academic expression.

To be clear, these are not professionally produced stories. Our fellows opted to experiment with forms of storytelling in order to communicate about their projects, and reflect on their own experiences as teachers opening their practices to inquiry and investigation. And, like other contributions to “Cultivating Change,” we’ve emphasized rapid production and publication, to emphasize the timeliness and time-bound nature of these conversations.

When we asked our fellows to respond to the question, “What motivates and sustains innovation in your teaching?” their answers reflected changes in a discipline’s applications, in tools and technologies available for teaching and learning, and in the marketplace:

They are motivated to be better teachers, to “meet students where they are” and keep students competitive. The drive to serve students well demands that teaching become more efficient/effective, as content grows, time decreases, and competition grows.

Some suggest that innovation keeps them engaged and challenged and inspired. And inspired teachers have a better chance of inspiring learners – the motivation for becoming a better teacher.

The story form is particularly suited to situating innovation within the cultural context of instructors’ disciplines. For our part, we’ve noted that curiosity, resilience, and optimism – their belief that the classroom experience and higher education itself is capable of being iteratively and infinitely improved – are the hallmarks of the faculty who innovate. We invite you to explore these stories and hope that you will find something there to spark, sustain, redirect/engage your own innovative thinking and doing.

Resources

Readers who are interested in following national trends and conversations around applications of learning technologies in higher education, explore these resources:

Also, UMinnesota instructors who would like to talk with an academic technology consultant about innovating in your class, contact us at atss@umn.edu.  Faculty, staff, and teaching assistants can enroll in hour-long workshops facilitated by experts in Academic Technology Support Services. Visit our AT Workshops web page to learn more and enroll.


Lauren & Kim – a brief bio:
As academic technology consultants, we work with members of the University community to leverage academic technology and improve the educational experience.  Since 2003, we have co-managed the 18-month Faculty Fellowship Program, a learning community that promotes leadership, scholarship, and innovation in technology-rich learning environments.  Kim helped create the program in 2000.  We bid a fond farewell to our final cohort in December, 2013.  

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