Saturday, April 12, 2014

Learning by Doing in Higher Ed

"10 Courses With a Twist" was a must-read in this week's New York Times Education Life. 

Here are some highlights:

Beyond Academic Research

For one, the article mentioned the new emphasis on engaging students in more non-traditional ways:

What’s exciting now is that even universities that prize academic research are putting more emphasis on teaching, says Matthew Kaplan, interim director for the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching at the University of Michigan. “There is pressure to have students engaged in their learning beyond ‘Come to the lecture, do the reading.’ ” He recalls that Michigan’s provost spent 55 minutes of a recent hourlong faculty meeting talking about teaching.

In inventive teaching, students are not just sponges soaking up content. They apply lessons to life, says C. Edward Watson, director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at the University of Georgia. He adds that “faculty are trying to be more engaging in the classroom” because, for one, “competition is greater than it used to be.”

The proliferation of online content means in-person courses must offer more than just another lecture “video.” 

Then the article got into the ten courses it found inventive and exciting. Courses such as . . . 

Introduction to Computer Science at Harvard

Dr. Malan says that he (and a staff of 102) “are really setting out to create not a course for students, but a college experience.” CS50 is popular as a massive open online course through edX, but the real action is on campus. An all-night hackathon is fueled by pizza at 9 p.m., Chinese food at 1 a.m. and pancakes at 5 a.m. Office hours, held in various dining halls, can attract 200. A fair to show off final projects, with cake and balloons, draws 2,200, including parents and busloads of curious high school students. There’s even an online store where you can buy CS50 apparel at cost to show off your course allegiance.

Love the hackathon and fair, which makes the work visible. Plus, the class seems really joyful and fun to take.

Introduction to Cultural Anthropology at Kansas State University

Check out the way this professor gamed the course:

How did the world end up the way it is today? It’s a big question, but Dr. [Michael] Wesch makes it tangible as students plan and play in a world simulation. The 200-level class is broken into groups of indigenous peoples and colonizers. They get bins of limited supplies and must trade for other items to make weapons, following rules they devise in advance. Colonizers typically get blowgun-like tools to launch marshmallow-tipped straws while indigenous peoples may only use rubber bands. 

We love the way "playing the game" created empathy within this student for a colonized person:

Jordan Thomas, who took the course in 2012 and is now a teaching assistant, felt the impact of being colonized and made to string marshmallows on rubber bands. When you get “taken over and are forced to sit around and assemble and manufacture a necklace for the entire hour, you engage in the emotions that come with that,” he says, adding that this was something he never would have gotten from a book.

We also love the impetus for gaming the course: the professor's frustration with students' being fixated on grades:

Dr. Wesch started the simulations in 2004 after growing frustrated that most student questions were about grades and how much something was worth on a test. “Those are terrible questions,” he says. [We completely agree!] “I realized I needed to change everything.” Yes, there is a final exam, but it’s only one question: Why are you here? (He’s expecting you to tell the 12,000-year history of mankind and what you plan to do for the planet.)

And talk about real-life application:

In the first session, Dr. Wesch points out that if the whole world were the 200 people in the room, 38 would be from China, 35 from India and 9 from the United States. “Three of you would be dying, and six would be pregnant. The child born in the U.S. will have 10 times the chance of surviving until his fifth birthday.” There’s enough food for 2,500 calories a day per person, he said, but 30 suffer from hunger. There’s no easy explanation for this: That’s the lesson of the course.

Philanthropy Courses

These courses remind us of the teen philanthropy program, Project SCOPE, that RealSchool has been working on this year. Actually having to decide what to do with money and work out what a good cause is is an invaluable lesson. In the following courses, students were given money to donate; the RealSchool students are raising our own funds on Jewcer, a crowdsourcing platform. We found that experience deeply helpful as well.



Having real money, and a deadline for giving it away, lets students feel both the power and the challenge of charitable donations. Since 2011, the Once Upon a Time Foundation has provided some $2.5 million for hands-on learning at 13 campuses, including the University of Virginia and Princeton. Fueling the trend, Warren Buffett’s sister Doris began an online course last year through her Sunshine Lady Foundation in which participants give away $100,000.

Caroline Trezza, a junior at Virginia who advocated funding City Schoolyard Garden, says she learned to evaluate programs and ask, “Are they addressing the problem, or addressing something tangential?” Philanthropy is harder than you’d expect. To help alleviate strife in rural Africa, Princeton students struggled with provocative questions. “You can save a lot of lives administering vaccines,” one student noted. Another countered, “But what if the people starve to death?”

Can You Weather This Class?

Upper-level students get to chase down tornadoes with one professor, Dr. Perry Samson -- the other professor of this Extreme Weather class in the University of Michigan is Dr. Stephen W. Bougher -- while the rest of the students log into a class platform where they must answer questions such as "Where on this weather map would you expect wind speeds to be highest?" Students are also encouraged to ask dumb questions -- anonymously, if they want -- and all tests are "open book, open computer, call a friend." As Professor Samson puts it:

In life, says Dr. Samson, rarely will you be asked a question about science that you can’t look up.

What a welcome change from the standardized testing approach to finding out what students know.

World Regions

In this Virginia Tech course taught by John Boyer, students find out how geography relates to . . . well, everything. And when Professor Boyer showed a map of Egypt in order to discuss the Arab Spring and students wanted to know why more wasn't going on in Jordan, Dr. Boyer said . . . 

“Maybe we should ask someone from Jordan.” Less than six hours after a YouTube appeal to King Abdullah II of Jordan, the king’s office responded.

Just in case you don't believe it's true, here's the video in which Dr. Boyer humbly beseeches King Adbullah for a visit to his classroom:

The Amazing Carol Dweck of Stanford

We've read about Dr. Dweck's work and have seen it featured in Becoming Adult: How Teenagers Prepare for the World of Work. We've also blogged about Dr. Dweck before, so we were excited to see her course featured in the Times article. We encourage all students -- and adults -- to embrace the growth mind-set students learn about in Dr. Dweck's class:

Learning by Doing and Do Change the World

We love that the Times highlighted courses that are hands-on, encourage creativity and divergent thinking, and are focused on creating empathetic, global citizens with the ability to embrace change and failure and the passion and desire to change the world! We also love that these courses seem really fun to take. We want all learning to be this engaging, joyful, and relevant.