Desert of My Real Life

Why is PSU Moving to Clusters?

President Birx wrote a blog post (which I’ve referenced more times than I can count) about the Four Tools of Clusters. It’s important to note that three of the four tools are directly related to the General Education program at Plymouth State University. I am starting to take on my responsibilities as the new (first!) Coordinator of General Education, a faculty position created by the General Education Committee. One of my main responsibilities (as recommended by the Gen Ed Review Task Force in Spring 2016) is to help align our Gen Ed program with the goals of the cluster initiative. So I thought it might be a good idea to remind myself (and others who are interested) why we are implementing clusters at Plymouth State University.

I started to write about this in my last blog post. which was about where we are with the First Year Seminar, the first of President Birx’s four tools of clusters. I wrote, “We are trying to ensure that students are able to articulate what their college curriculum is all about. We want them to be able to tell their educational story and to really own their educational experience. We want students to be active participants in their educational journey.”

I think Cathy N. Davidson articulated what we’re trying to do with clusters in her inspirational book The New Education. I wrote about this book a few months ago and still find it to be an inspiration for helping me to think about the importance of the cluster initiative goals. Davidson argues that we need a new education that focuses on “breaking down barriers between ossified fields of study, presenting … students with multidisciplinary, real-world problems, and teaching them not just how to think, but how to learn.” This is exactly what we’re trying to do with the cluster initiative.

I won’t be able to do justice to the nuanced, cogent argument for the need for a new education that Davidson makes. So I strongly urge you to go read her book. It will make you think about education in new ways. But the gist of her argument is that access to knowledge and information has changed dramatically since the time of Charles Eliot, the President of Harvard University from 1869 until 1909, a time during which Eliot introduced many of the ideas about standardization and metrics that we live with in colleges and universities today. Davidson argues that these ideas no longer serve our students well precisely because our relationship to knowledge and information has changed. Knowledge and information are freely available to most of us at all times via our phones and other devices. And yet, we often ban the use of these devices in the classroom. Davidson observes, “It’s odd and even irresponsible that formal education is the one place where we’re not using the devices on which we do our learning all the rest of the time.” This makes no sense, she argues, if we are trying to prepare students to be successful in the world. Instead of banning the technology because it infringes on our antiquated notions of what a classroom should look like, we should be designing our classes and curricula to teach students to “understand, gain insight into, and maybe even exert more control over the technologies that have changed and sometimes dominated our lives and will do so even more in the future.” Teaching students how to research, interpret, and take action using knowledge that they encounter and seek using information technology will serve students well when they leave the university (as well as while they are at the university). This is the kind of work most of them will be expected to do by their employers. And being technologically literate in the ways Davidson describes will make our graduates the productive and contributing citizens that our democracy needs.

Davidson also writes, “Students work best when they know their work is for their future beyond school, not just for the test, and when they realize their work contributes. For the last decade, I’ve refused to assign students any term or research project that they do only for me for the purpose of a grade.” This is the heart of what we’re trying to do with the cluster initiative. We want our students to engage in work that lives beyond the classroom in some way: working with external partners on projects that will live in time beyond the end of the course and/or be used by people outside of the classroom. And we want them to engage in that work in realistic ways: using technology, engaging with others from multiple disciplines, working on unscripted problems whose answers are not already known and predefined. This is messy work. It can even be scary for instructors who are used to being in control of everything in the classroom and for students who are used to doing work that won’t be seen by anyone but the instructor. But if we can move beyond our fears, students learn so much more when they engage in meaningful work, even when the end product is not particularly successful. The process of creating the work is itself meaningful and is critical to teach students how to learn and to take responsibility for their learning.

And so that’s what we’re doing with the four tools of clusters. We have already modified our First Year Seminar so that students learn about a wicked problem and try to make a difference by developing projects that address some aspect of the problem. We decided to focus on wicked problems so that both students and instructors understand that we’re trying to affect the outside world in some way. In my experience teaching the FYS, the projects themselves were not always successful in changing the world but the act of trying to change the world helps students to understand that learning is a lifelong pursuit and for most of the rest of their lives, they will be in charge of their own learning.

We are now working on developing a Gen Ed capstone experience that will bring students from different majors together to work on a project that again touches the outside world in some way. We are currently thinking that these projects will also focus on wicked problems but I don’t think this is absolutely necessary at the capstone level. For example, I’m developing a capstone course in which students design experiences for newer students. They might work on designing orientation experiences since they will have better ideas about what first year students need to know when they enter the university. They will also have good ideas about how to present what new students need to know in ways that will stick and be meaningful. That isn’t obviously a wicked problem but I think it’s the perfect kind of project for students nearing the end of their time with us and who might want to give back to the PSU community. The FYS and the capstone act as bookends for the students’ Gen Ed curriculum which will mean that every student will have at least two of the kind of experiences that we know make a difference in their engagement with their education. (As an aside, these are called high impact practices and there is a lot of research about their effectiveness.)

The third tool related to Gen Ed that President Birx wrote about is themed Gen Ed. His idea is that we will connect groups of three or four courses from the rest of our Gen Ed program (Directions and Connections courses) to provide an integrated perspective about a topic or a problem. The President suggests that perhaps students could earn some sort of credential if they take the group of three or four courses. I would push the idea further. We (faculty) already connect groups of courses in the form of majors, minors, and components of the Gen Ed program. For example, at PSU, students are required to take two Scientific Inquiry courses from a list of courses that the faculty have agreed contain common elements which allow them to carry the Scientific Inquiry designation. Students see this as a check list which is exactly what we’re trying to avoid with the cluster initiative. Instead, we want students to be able to articulate why they took a particular set of classes, how those classes relate to each other, and what they learned from those classes that they carry with them after the courses are over. I think this requires us to do something differently in those classes than what we are currently doing. We need to make the connections more explicit and tangible so that students observe, question, articulate, and demonstrate the connections. Perhaps they will even see connections that we didn’t expect. How do we do this? I think there are lots of ways we could do this. For example, a group of faculty this spring taught a set of four classes all of which had some focus on curiosity and mindfulness. Once a week, students from all four classes came together to discuss what they were learning with the students in the other classes. This model extends the work done in one class to the work done in other classes. But this is only one model. We might have a set of classes that work on various aspects of the same project. Students could take one class in the set each semester for three or four subsequent semesters, working on the project all along but looking at it from different perspectives each semester. Or we might connect a set of classes via a portfolio of work that a student would add to and change in each class as they took them. The portfolio would become richer over time as the student saw the connections between the classes. The point is that in order for themed Gen Ed to be meaningful and supportive of students taking charge of their educational experience, we must provide new kinds of experiences in these themed classes.

I have experimented with new kinds of experiences in my classes. For example, in Fall 2017, students in my Intro to Media Studies class (which is a Technology Connection course in the Gen Ed program) began to develop an open educational resource (OER) to act as a textbook for future offerings of the class. As I wrote in an earlier blog post, this was a challenging experience for all of us but it was well worth it. Students wrote things like: “The best part about working on the OER besides the fact that we will become published authors and have worked on something really rewarding, was that I really understood everything we read. There was no way we could write a section on something we didn’t understand. This is probably one of the only classes where I understood everything and everything made sense.” And, “I learned so many things from this OER project, but if I had to name just three they would be, how to use Office365 OneDrive, how to efficiently research scholarly resources, and how to find things that are not only relevant to the subject I am learning, but how to find things that I am passionate about related to the subject matter.” These comments indicate to me that these students are learning how to learn and are beginning to take charge of their educational experience. Their relationship to the knowledge they are learning has changed and they are beginning to see themselves as active contributors to that body of knowledge. And this is what we are trying to accomplish with the cluster initiative.

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