Media, Technology, and Education
Cluster PedagogyIntegrated ClustersOpen Pedagogy

January Jamboree 2019

I have been meaning to write a post about Plymouth State University’s January Jamboree event but January and now 10 days of February have slipped by me. The only reason I don’t feel badly about this is because there has been a TON of stuff going on related to General Education and the Integrated Cluster Initiative. I’ll write about that in my next post. In this one, I want to summarize the sessions I attended at January Jamboree. The focus of this year’s Jan Jam was “cluster pedagogy.”

The first session was a keynote by Robin DeRosa. In his introduction of her, our Provost announced that Robin has been appointed as the Director of PSU’s new Open Learning and Teaching Collaborative. The Open CoLab replaces our former Center for Transformation and “is not just a teaching and learning center. It is a lab space where our community can actively engage with the scholarship of teaching and learning, play with new approaches to disciplinary content and methods, find support for linking our work to related work in other contexts and fields, and learn and create together as part of an integrated community.” I think this a great direction for the University and am excited to work closely with Robin as we implement the project funded by our recent Davis Educational Foundation grant.

Robin talked about the fact that we were doing awesome things before we embarked on the Integrated Cluster Initiative and that we’ve done some awesome things since we’ve started to implement clusters. She encouraged us to remember all of that good stuff and refocus our energies on teaching and learning. She talked about clusters as fluid structure which enable us to focus on interdisciplinary learning, project-based learning, and open learning. In other words, clusters enable us to focus on cluster pedagogy. Robin’s smart and inspiring keynote can be seen here: DeRosa’s Jan Jam Keynote.

There were then two tracks that faculty and staff could follow: one focused mostly on faculty issues and one focused mostly on staff issues. There were, however, some sessions that overlapped the interests of the faculty and the staff. I went to the sessions primarily designed for the faculty.

I co-facilitated a session with members of the General Education Committee focused on the relationship between Gen Ed and cluster pedagogy. We handed out a document with the following information on it:

What is cluster pedagogy? Cluster pedagogy is PSU’s implementation of open pedagogy. DeRosa and Jhangiani define open pedagogy as “advocacy for the use of open educational resources merged with pedagogical approaches that emphasize collaboration, connection, diversity, democracy, and critical assessment of educational tools and structures.”

(from DeRosa and Jhangiani, “What is Open Pedagogy?”,, accessed January 1, 2019.)

General Education classes play a special role in cluster pedagogy as they constitute three of the Four Tools of Integrated Clusters. In particular, classes that are using cluster pedagogy have at least one (probably more than one) of the following characteristics:

  • Interdisciplinarity and integration: Students are challenged to understand and use various disciplinary perspectives and to integrate those perspectives to create new and unique projects and/or solutions.
  • Project-based work that extends beyond the walls of the classroom: Students work on projects that impact the world outside of the classroom in some way.
  • Sharing with an external audience: Student work is shared with an audience external to the course.
(Adapted from President Birx’s Four Tools of Integrated Clusters,, by the General Education Coordinator, the First Year Seminar Steering Committee, and the Integrated Capstone Fellows.)

Project-based work and Sharing with an external audience:

According to the Buck Institute, high quality project-based learning has the following elements:

  • Challenging Problem or Question: The project is framed by a meaningful problem to solve or a question to answer, at the appropriate level of challenge.
  • Sustained Inquiry: Students engage in a rigorous, extended process of asking questions, finding resources, and applying information.
  • Authenticity: The project features real-world context, tasks and tools, quality standards, or impact—or speaks to students’ personal concerns, interests, and issues in their lives.
  • Student Voice & Choice: Students make some decisions about the project, including how they work and what they create.
  • Reflection: Students and teachers reflect on the effectiveness of their inquiry and project activities, the quality of student work, obstacles and how to overcome them.
  • Critique & Revision: Students give, receive, and use feedback to improve their process and products.
  • Public Product: Students make their project work public by displaying and/or presenting it to people beyond the classroom.
(from Larmer, Ross, & Mergendoller, PBL Starter Kit, 2nd edition, Buck Institute for Education, p. 4, (2017).)

Interdisciplinarity and integration:

Students work in multidisciplinary teams to complete their projects. Students bring their disciplinary perspective to these collaborative projects and learn about other disciplinary perspectives from their groupmates. The best projects will be interdisciplinary. That is, the various disciplinary perspectives of the students involved in the project will integrate.

In addition, cluster pedagogy helps students integrate the various disciplinary perspectives they encounter in their variety of classes. Note that this is the goal that motivates the development of thematic pathways within the Gen Ed program. The important pedagogical experience in a thematic pathway is that we help students make the connections between the classes within the pathway as well as between the pathway and other aspects of their educations and lives.

“General Education programs inevitably require students to take courses that are grounded in a variety of disciplines. … we stressed that only an interdisciplinary approach can prepare students to connect the diverse sets of disciplinary insights that they will encounter in general education, and further connect these to their (disciplinary or interdisciplinary) majors. In other words, interdisciplinarity provides general education with coherence.”

(from Carmichael, Dellner, & Szostak, “Report from the Field: Interdisciplinary General Education,” Issues in Interdisciplinary Studies, No. 35, pp. 248-258, (2017).)

There are multiple purposes for this document. We wanted everyone to have a common understanding of what cluster pedagogy is and to have something in writing about it that they could take away with them. But we also wanted everyone to understand that each of these components of cluster pedagogy are grounded in research that has demonstrated their effectiveness. We then engaged participants in a series of discussions in which they identified how they might incorporate some of these three cluster pedagogy components in their classes and what the obstacles for doing so are. We collected the obstacles in a Google doc which Robin DeRosa and I will use to help figure out the kind of professional development and support faculty need in order to move forward with cluster pedagogy.

I then attended two related sessions. Because we’re increasing the number of projects that our students work on in their classes, some issues related to working outside the classroom have arisen. In particular, some students are engaging in human subjects research in which case, the US government has some rules and our Institutional Review Board needs to approve their work. In addition, students have sometimes wanted to raise funds for non-profit organizations who are doing work related to their wicked problem but the University System of New Hampshire has some strict rules about what is allowed and what is not. In both of these sessions, people involved in these processes engaged in dialog with instructors who have their students work on these kinds of projects. It is clear that we need to have more of these conversations.

After lunch, I went to three sessions related to actual examples of and experiences with cluster pedagogy. In the first session, a faculty panel discussed their experiences with cluster pedagogy and what the benefits and challenges of this kind of work are. The next session involved a faculty panel discussing their assignments and the work that students created based on those assignments. The final panel was a group of students discussing their experiences with cluster pedagogy. Although these sessions were lightly attended, I think the information about what it is actually like to teach and learn using cluster pedagogy were helpful.

I could only attend one morning session the next day. Christin Wixson talked about Creative Commons licensing and what the benefits and drawbacks are to open licensing one’s work. I completed the Creative Common certification program for faculty over the summer so I feel like I’m pretty knowledgeable about this topic. Nevertheless, I learned things from Christin that were helpful. She is an invaluable resource for the campus.

I really liked that this year’s January Jamboree had a clear focus on a single topic (for faculty anyway). Getting as many faculty and staff to understand what we mean by cluster pedagogy is an important step in the cluster initiative.


Image Credit: Pedagogy by Kevin Mears Licensed CC-BY

Article written by:

I am currently Professor of Digital Media at Plymouth State University in Plymouth, NH. I am also the current Coordinator of General Education at the University. I am interested in astrophotography, game studies, digital literacies, open pedagogies, and generally how technology impacts our culture.

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