The end of the calendar year marks the end of our first year (of three) of funding from the Davis Educational Foundation. Our project, called Implementing Cluster Pedagogy in the General Education Program, provides the basis for the Cluster Pedagogy Learning Community (CPLC), a group of nearly 70 faculty members who have met face-to-face regularly and worked together online on a variety of assignments. We are gearing up to welcome the second cohort into the learning community and so it was helpful to write the end of year project report for the Foundation to remind myself about all we have accomplished so far. Here is the bulk of the report:
The goals of the funded project are:
Provide professional development to allow faculty to feel prepared to and be successful in using cluster pedagogy in their classes.
Change campus culture so that cluster pedagogy is the norm.
Help students to develop the Habits of Mind over the course of their participation in the Gen Ed program.
Professional Development via the Cluster Pedagogy Learning Community
In March 2019, we put out a call to all faculty for participation in our Cluster Pedagogy Learning Community (CPLC) starting in May 2019. Through the generous Davis Educational Foundation (DEF) grant, we had funding for stipends for 50 faculty to participate. We combined this funding with funding from the University System of New Hampshire to engage 10 faculty in open education projects through the Academic Technology Institute (a program PSU has participated in for 10 years). Therefore, we had funding for 60 faculty to participate in the CPLC. We received 70 applications. Rather than turn anyone down, the Provost’s Office funded the additional 10 participants. For personal reasons, 2 applicants declined the stipend so we started the CPLC in May 2019 with 68 participants. The CPLC participants were divided into three tracks: the TWP track in which all 30 instructors of our First Year Seminar (called Tackling a Wicked Problem or TWP) were required to participate; the Open track in which all participants in the Academic Technology Institute were required to participate; and the Main track for CPLC participants who were not part of the other 2 tracks.
The CPLC met 4 times throughout the summer and once during the Fall semester with several significant online “assignments” to be completed between the face-to-face meetings. Three of the summer face-to-face meetings were half-day, morning events for all CPLC participants. The TWP track participants were also required to attend half-day, afternoon events on those same days in order to talk about specific issues related to using cluster pedagogy in the Tackling a Wicked Problem class. PSU paid for lunch for the TWP track on these days. The agenda for each meeting can be found on the web site for the CPLC: https://colab.plymouthcreate.net/cplc/cplc-syllabus/
At the end of the summer, participants were asked to reflect on their CPLC experience using the following prompt: Please discuss your key takeaways from the CPLC experience so far, and explore how you hope they will inform your work at Plymouth State over the upcoming academic year. These reflections have been collected in the freely available text called Cluster Learning at Plymouth State: A Community-Based Approach to Pedagogy: https://cluster-learning-at-plymouth-state.press.plymouth.edu/
Examination of the agendas for the CPLC meetings shows that we provided professional development opportunities related to cluster pedagogy (which we are now calling cluster learning) for faculty. Examination of the text Cluster Learning at Plymouth State shows that faculty felt varying levels of preparedness to face the challenges of integrating cluster pedagogy into their classes. We are continuing our cluster learning conversations during our campus-wide January Jamboree event and in another meeting of the CPLC in April with guest speaker Joshua Eyler, the author of How Humans Learn, a book read and discussed by many members of the CPLC. We are also in the planning stages of the second year of the CPLC with more ways faculty can participate which will include a track for those interested in teaching the General Education Capstone course. A preliminary examination of the Fall 2019 course evaluations from Tackling a Wicked Problem suggest that more instructors than in previous semesters were able to infuse cluster learning into their sections of the course. We are working on a report of those course evaluations to share with the campus.
Changing Campus Culture
We seem to be beginning to change the campus culture to focus more on cluster learning as a norm in classes. Cluster learning with its central ideas of integrated, interdisciplinary project-based learning with projects that touch the world outside the classroom is understood by more and more faculty members who are not part of the CPLC. In addition, PSU staff are designing a professional development community based on cluster learning and the way we organized the CPLC. We also changed the way we organize the poster symposium for students in the Tackling a Wicked Problem course to make it a campus-wide event in which students doing work in other courses and in independent experiences participate. The event, called Showcase of Student Engagement, will be held in the last week of classes every semester for the foreseeable future. Opening this event to other students helps to normalize the idea that the work of our students matters and spreads the word to more people on campus and in the community about cluster learning at PSU.
Helping Students Develop Habits of Mind and Assessment of Our Efforts
The Habits of Mind (HoM) are the learning outcomes of our General Education program. A major topic of discussion in the CPLC focuses on the relationship between cluster learning and the HoM. In particular, we discuss how to use cluster learning to provide students with opportunities to practice the HoM. Reading the course evaluations from the Fall 2019 sections of Tackling a Wicked Problem suggests that students are learning about what the Habits of Mind (HoM) are and what they need to do in order to improve their practice of them. Many of the students wrote that learning about the HoM was the most valuable thing in the course. Talking to students about their projects at the Showcase of Student Engagement event further supports the idea that students are learning about and practicing the HoM in the Tackling a Wicked Problem course.
To provide further evidence of the role of the General Education program, as a whole, in student development of the HoM, a group of Tackling a Wicked Problem instructors met on January 13 to use a common set of activities to assess their students’ level of achievement on the HoM. We have not yet analyzed the results of that assessment. In the future, we will engage in a similar assessment for students in the General Education Capstone course, called the Integrated Capstone (INCAP). A comparison of the percentage of students at each level of achievement after they have taken Tackling a Wicked Problem and after they have taken the INCAP will provide us with information about the relationship between those two cluster learning focused classes and students’ improved achievement on the HoM. Our assessment of the project’s impact on student learning is a work in progress and is on-going.
Impact on Costs
One of the major topics of discussion in the CPLC is about the use of Open Educational Resource (OER) to provide increased access for our students to educational materials. The Tackling a Wicked Problem course, for example, uses a custom OER (https://wicked-problem.press.plymouth.edu/) in all sections of the course. We used to assign a critical thinking textbook in each section of our First Year Seminar. These texts range in cost from $35 to $150. There were 890 students in Tackling a Wicked Problem this fall. If we assume each of those students would have paid $35 for their textbook in the past, we can see that we saved students $31,150 in textbook costs in that one class for this one semester. If, on the hand, we assume an average of $90 for the critical thinking texts that faculty might have chosen in the past, then we can see that we have saved students $88,100 in textbook costs. We are working on a report with a more comprehensive value of the cost savings to students that has resulted from our use of OER.
The major lesson that we take from our work on this project is: Context and community are vital to successful institutional change. What do we mean by this?
The local context of an institution matters in trying to make change. Simply picking up something that works at one institution and plopping it into the context of another institution is unlikely to be successful. For example, more than 15 years ago, PSU moved away from a content-based General Education program to a skills-based program where each discipline can contribute to all aspects of the program. We introduced the explicit idea of interdisciplinarity into the program more than 15 years ago. As a result, we were primed as a campus to embrace the integrated, interdisciplinary strand of pedagogy in cluster learning. Another campus might struggle with integration and interdisciplinarity but embrace other pedagogies. The focus on integration and interdisciplinarity in our cluster learning model arose organically from work that we were already doing.
The details of the change that PSU is undertaking in our teaching has emerged from the needs, strengths, and interests of our learning community. This emergence engages our community of educators in a way that increases our investment in the success of the change. Many of us, in writing about our key takeaways from the summer of working together, highlighted the importance of the community itself as a source of strength and hope for long-term success in our efforts. We cannot over-estimate the power of being in a room full of passionate educators committed to creating a better educational experience for students. Ensuring an ongoing connection among people involved in pedagogical change is critical and likely requires the use of technologies between face-to-face meetings. We also facilitated the formation of Reflective Practice groups for faculty wanting to engage in ongoing face-to-face conversations about teaching with cluster pedagogy. The ability to turn to the community in challenging times will help individuals to maintain their energy and focus until the next face-to-face meeting.
Building community in a local context can be challenging, however. The biggest challenge we have faced is getting as many people as possible to buy into the changes we are trying to make. The CPLC participants have mostly bought in and the successes they have in their work encourages them to continue to engage. But even then, there are disagreements about the importance of particular aspects of our project. For example, there was significant push-back on the idea to preempt classes for part of a day during the last week of classes so that all students and faculty would have the opportunity to attend the Showcase of Student Engagement. It seems that most who attended saw the value of the event even if they had previously been against the preempting of classes. There will always be disagreements about specific details but we continue to move forward with decisions that can be defended in relationship to the goals of the project. Some who did not participate in the CPLC or attend the Showcase remain skeptical of what we are trying to do. We will continue to let our work and our honest evaluation of it speak for itself.
Another challenge that we faced arose because we tried to model the CPLC on the cluster learning environment that we think instructors should be creating in their classrooms. The role of the educator in these classrooms is to create a community among the learners, build a learning environment that encourages self-confidence and self-sufficiency, and then set the learners free to explore the content that is most meaningful to them in the context of the topic of the course. The educator provides guidance and support, including opportunities for public sharing of student work. This change from traditional pedagogy is challenging at first to many of our students and we discovered that it is equally challenging to many instructors when they are engaged as learners as well.
Feedback after first face-to-face CPLC meeting included a few comments like: “Some of the activities were a little vague (I think part of the point), but in some ways, I am still a bit confused as to the objectives and outcomes of this project. I’m still excited to figure that out, but I thought I would learn more about that in the orientation.” And “Good intent, but I feel our purpose was not very clear and that was reinforced by discussions with others.” But it was also clear that some participants understood right away what we were trying to, as evidenced in comments like this one: “I also love the flexible structure (contradiction, I know) that you both have put in place…lots of resources, BUT we choose our own entry point and how to communicate with others. You are modeling the behaviors you would like to see in all of our classrooms…that’s what master teachers do.”
In response to the feedback about the first face-to-face CPLC meeting, we adjusted our own pedagogy to include a bit more structure and direction for those who wanted it. The feedback for the second meeting still included comments like: “Parts of today were good, but I would like more training. To me, a ‘learning community’ should help me build skills for my teaching by sharing and working with others.” The majority of the comments for the second meeting, however, were similar to these: “I am in the TWP track, and I really appreciated the way the afternoon session was structured using strategies that are consistent with the approach we can take in TWP.” And “I found the second session to be engaging, interesting and felt a sense of community building among the group. I enjoyed the mapping exercise and process of thought and engagement. I realized how much I want to be right and so will better understand when my students feel that.”
We did not adjust much in our pedagogy for the third and fourth meetings, trusting that we had reached a critical mass of faculty who understood the modeling approach that we were taking to building a learning community. Although there were some comments about specific activities and how they might be improved, the comments about the overall learning community were all similar to these: “Today was extremely beneficial. I appreciated the unconference session on HoMs led by [X] and the table discussion on group formulation from 1:30 to 2:30. Oh, and the last exercise was excellently social and packed with pedagogical parallels.” And “The final CPLC session was as inspiring as ever. I loved the actual example materials introduced during the session. On the top of that, I loved the feeling of being in a community where we could share our success as well as our errors.” And “BEST BEST BEST! I loved this session! I would gladly have gone to ALL of the workshops, so my only regret is that I couldn’t.” We will continue to work on the ways in which we get CPLC participants to understand the pedagogical approach of the learning community and its relationship to infusing their own classes with the approach.
Another challenge is that some participants did not immediately understand that the community relies on the sharing of work between the face-to-face meetings despite the many ways we set up for such sharing. This issue got better as the CPLC progressed so that all but 1 participant submitted an entry for the Cluster Learning at Plymouth State University text at the end of the summer. This will be something that we will need to work on with the next cohort of the CPLC.
Sharing Our Work
We have been quite successful in sharing the work of the project on campus, regionally, and even nationally. This work is a campus-wide effort with participation from many different departments and disciplines. The work is discussed at many faculty meetings, in special events like University Days (3 days of professional development before the start of the Fall semester) and January Jamboree (2 days of professional development before the start of the Spring semester), and in many reports to the campus. Close to 70 participants have helped to spread the word of what we are doing in the CPLC across campus. Many of the CPLC participants have developed their own online Professional Learning Networks (PLNs) via social media and personal web sites and spread the word about our work using those methods. The Open Learning and Teaching Collaborative (Open CoLab) at PSU has helped to spread the word about our work. For example, the topic of “ungrading” emerged from members of the CPLC becoming interested in it after reading about it. The Director of the Open CoLab has organized a Webinar in early February where a group of us will share our experiences with a larger, online audience. In addition, we have been asked to talk about our cluster learning approach in a variety of contexts (SUNY Fredonia, Cambridge College, the NECHE annual meeting in Boston, a meeting of Leadership NH, etc.) and our work was featured in a sponsored Chronicle of Higher Education article about the Center for Project-Based Learning (https://sponsored.chronicle.com/CPBL/index.html).
Sustaining Our Work
We will continue to engage with this project for the next two years of funding but we have already begun to think about how to sustain our work beyond the funding period. For example, the Open CoLab is developing a Faculty Affiliate program that will engage faculty as mentors for colleagues who are just getting started in cluster learning. These Affiliates will receive stipends for the next two years via the Davis Grant (the “coach” line in the budget) but the position is being marketed as a way to help PSU move forward with our cluster learning model for the foreseeable future (not just the next year) and there seems to be significant interest. The Faculty Affiliate program might also be the place where we sustain our Cluster Pedagogy Learning Community. We will continue to think about the sustainability of our efforts and welcome ideas.
Image Credit: Cathie LeBlanc, taken on January 14, 2020, “Remarkable Focus”
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 game studies, digital literacies, open pedagogies, and generally how technology impacts our culture.