Media, Technology, and Education
Integrated Clusters

Progress Report: Cluster Initiative

I have had a couple of conversations recently in which people expressed concern that we have not accomplished much with the cluster initiative. I think this concern is coming up right now because we are at the end of our seed funding for cluster projects. Cluster projects were the focus of the cluster initiative for the first two years of the initiative. There were (and are) some great projects that students participated in. But we have been doing a lot of other stuff that people don’t seem to remember are part of the cluster initiative. I was talking about this to Pat Cantor and she said that she led the Education, Democracy, and Social Change (EDSC) cluster through an exercise at their last meeting in which they identified the various pieces of the cluster initiative and then identified how each individual participates in those pieces. Luckily, the EDSC cluster tapes their meetings so you can see the whole thing here. I’ll summarize the 10 minute intro in this post.

First, we had cluster projects. A lot of people requested funding to engage in interdisciplinary projects that reached outside of the University in a variety of ways. Here is a list of cluster projects completed in 2017 and 2018. I’m not sure if this is a complete list for 2018 but I suspect that it isn’t.

Next, we have the four tools of the cluster initiative that President Birx identified in a blog post. We have been teaching the First Year Seminar for two years in the way he describes. Each section of the course has focused on a wicked problem, a societal challenge that is difficult or impossible to solve for a variety of reasons. Students use design thinking to develop collaborative projects that will have an impact on the wicked problem in ways that live beyond the course. In fact, we have made such significant progress on this piece of the cluster initiative that we have deleted the First Year Seminar and created a new course (called Tackling a Wicked Problem (TWP)) that is completely focused on giving students an interdisciplinary experience working collaboratively on projects that address some aspect of the wicked problem. The First Year Seminar Steering Committee is currently working on a report about our assessment activities and recommendations about moving forward with this part of the cluster initiative.

The second of the President’s tools is the Integrated Capstone (INCAP). This course acts as a bookend to TWP. TWP is taken in the student’s first year while the INCAP is taken at the end of the student’s General Education program and allows the student to continue to practice and  demonstrate their level of achievement in the General Education skills and Habits of Mind. We are currently offering seven sections of the INCAP as part of a pilot program. In these courses, students collaborate across disciplines to create signature projects that address a significant problem, issue, or question. A signature project:

  • Is transdisciplinary: The project integrates knowledge from multiple disciplines and sources to create something new that could not be created without all of them.
  • Is completed collaboratively: The project is large and complex enough that it requires input and work from more than one person to be successful.
  • Is student-driven: While faculty, staff, and community partners provide guidance and coaching, student agency and independence move the project forward.
  • Requires metacognitive reflection: Students reflect on what and how they learn and how their learned knowledge, skills, and dispositions might be transferable to other contexts.
  • Reaches beyond the walls of the classroom: The work of the project touches the world outside the classroom in some way.
  • Has an external audience for project results: The results of the project are presented to someone who is outside of the class.
  • Is completed ethically and respectfully: Work on the project engages internal/external audiences and/or partners with mutual benefit.

I’m not positive about how we will move forward with the INCAP. The group of INCAP instructors will meet near the end of this month to discuss how we will assess the course and make a recommendation about how to proceed.

The third tool that President Birx wrote about is themed General Education. His idea is that we want students to understand their General Education classes in relation to other aspects of their education and their lives. The General Education Committee has started to talk about this tool as “thematic pathways” in Gen Ed. So far, we have offered one thematic pathway. A group of faculty offered a set of four General Education classes that all focused on the role of curiosity and contemplation in their disparate disciplines. For example, a Biology Gen Ed course focused on curiosity and contemplation in science while an English Gen Ed course focused on curiosity and contemplation in relation to Shakespeare. The students in the four courses met together once a week and taught each other what they were learning and this provided the opportunity for students to connect their learning to something outside of their particular class. There are other ways to create thematic pathways, however. A group of faculty in the Arts and Technologies cluster is discussing how to implement Christian Bisson’s idea of a cluster semester. The idea is that a group of 25 students take a set of four 4-credit General Education classes together as a cohort in a single semester. The instructors of the four classes work together on a theme. In Arts and Technologies, for example, we might create a theme of storytelling. The four classes would focus on storytelling from a variety of disciplinary perspectives. The classes would meet separately for 3 credits but then come together for a longer period of time once a week so that students could work on projects related to the theme. In order for this plan to work, several disciplines within the cluster would need to structure their major curriculum so that students can indeed take one semester that is entirely comprised of Gen Ed classes. I know we can do this in Communication and Media Studies and I’m pretty sure there are other disciplines in the A&T cluster that could do this. There are also other ways that themed Gen Ed could be implemented and I know conversations have started.

The final tool in the President’s four tools is open labs. The University has invested some pretty significant funds in building some of these spaces. For example, in Lamson Learning Commons, there is space on the ground level that contains tools for creating (and consuming) various types of media such as video, audio, and virtual reality. I don’t have data about usage of these spaces but I think there’s anecdotal evidence that these are popular spaces.

We have recently begun conversations about cluster pedagogy which is comprised of three strands: interdisciplinary learning, open learning, and project-based learning. Many people are interested in one or more of these strands and so we are beginning a Cluster Pedagogy Learning Community (CPLC) in May. Seventy instructors signed up to participate in this learning community which I think speaks to the level of commitment we have for providing meaningful education experiences for students. Lots of people are already providing learning experiences for their students that are related to one or more of the three strands of cluster pedagogy and the learning community will benefit from their experiences.

Pat identified cluster curriculum as the ninth piece of the cluster initiative. One type of cluster curriculum we have already started to engage with is toolkit courses. These are 1-credit courses that are focused on the development of specific skills. We have offered courses in editing and writing skills, video editing, video composition, and blogging among others. Other kinds of cluster curriculum that faculty are discussing are courses shared by multiple programs in a particular cluster. For example, the Arts and Technologies cluster is discussing the development of an INCAP course that would be required in multiple programs within the cluster (but could be taken by any student regardless of their program). This INCAP course would have the characteristics of the INCAP that I described above but would be “branded” as an A&T cluster course because it would be focused on storytelling and making things, which are the two prominent ideas that separate this cluster from other clusters.

Finally, Pat identified the development of cluster structure and administration as the tenth piece of the cluster initiative that we have been working on. We have spent a ton of time on this and probably still have a ton of work to do. This piece probably impacts our students less than the other aspects of the cluster initiative but it’s important. This is a piece that I don’t have a clear idea of how it’s all going to end up but mention it as Pat did because people on campus have spent a lot of time on it.

This list is extensive. We have been doing a lot. Part of Pat’s purpose in sharing this list was to help people with the development of their work plans because we will all need to talk about how we’re participating in the cluster initiative. But I also think it’s useful to step back every so often to see that we are indeed making some good progress.


Photo by Shlomo Shalev on Unsplash

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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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