Media, Technology, and Education
Cluster PedagogyIntegrated Clusters

Cluster Learning: Focus on Process and Complexity

To prepare for the next meeting of the Cluster Pedagogy Learning Community (CPLC) at Plymouth State University, I (re)read three articles, each of which is focused on one aspect of our Integrated Cluster Learning Model. Although I have read all of these articles before, reading them back to back to back made me think of their commonalities in a way that I hadn’t before. All three of the strands of the Integrated Cluster Learning Model emphasize process over product and resist attempts to simplify the  complexities we encounter when we engage students in authentic learning.

The first article is What Makes a Good Project? by Gary Stager. He writes:

The Constructivist Consortium believes in Papert’s theory of constructionism; the idea that the best way to construct knowledge, or understanding, is through the construction of something shareable, outside of a student’s head. Those artifacts are commonly thought of as projects, even though the project development process is where the learning occurs.

On rereading this paragraph, I was really struck by “the project development process is where the learning occurs.” In various conversations about what we are trying to do in Tackling a Wicked Problem, groups of faculty have talked about “projects” being more about process rather than the actual product.

The article goes on to explain the elements of a good project, one of which is complexity:

The best projects combine multiple subject areas and call upon the prior knowledge and expertise of each student. Best of all, serendipitous insights and connections to big ideas lead to the greatest payoff for learners.

Because the project draws upon “the prior knowledge and expertise of each student,” these projects cannot be completely planned ahead of time which adds an additional level of complexity. Even if two groups of students are working on similar projects, they will be different because the students bring different prior knowledge and expertise to the table.

Our PSU colleague, Abby Goode, wrote the next article we read for homework: Slow Interdisciplinarity. She critiques shallow, facile attempts to bring interdisciplinarity into students’ education: “In our frenzy to be interdisciplinary, we are often quick to label our work and our courses as such, without putting pressure on the implicit knowledge divides and hierarchies that govern intellectual life, without recognizing the vital role that students play in rendering a learning experience interdisciplinary.” She advocates that we focus on “slowing down, making space for conversations about disciplinary divides and methods, and recognizing how those divides affect the classroom community.” Goode concludes by saying:

Most importantly, interdisciplinarity comes from the learners themselves — their fields, their experiences, their ways of knowing. It comes from the questions that they choose to pursue and the collaborations that they undertake. It is a dynamic process, and one that is slower than we think.

Her focus in this piece is on the dynamic, explicit process of bringing students into the conversation about interdisciplinarity. Like Stager, Goode articulates the complexity of this process: “it is incredibly challenging to articulate what we do in our disciplines and why. In fact, some students in the same major disagreed with one another about their field’s priorities and methods.” Rather than shying away from that complexity, she encourages us to ask:

To what extent do we encourage disciplinary awareness in our own fields and major courses? To what extent do we prepare students for the kinds of interdisciplinary work that they will encounter in their courses and careers? Do they know what they do in their discipline and why it is important? Can they explain it to someone outside of their field?

The final article that we read is Open Education, Open Questions by Catherine Cronin who begins with an exploration of what we mean by “open” when we talk about open educational practices (OEP). One of the goals of OEP, Cronin writes, is to “respect and empower learners as co-producers on their lifelong, learning paths.” As we engage in OEP, we embrace the fact that learning is a lifelong process and our role is to help students gain a sense of agency in that process.

Cronin explains, however, that it may be tempting to paint “open” as “good” in opposition to “closed” as “bad.” Openness is more complex than this dichotomy implies. Openness carries risks as sava singh has written: “The people calling for open are often in positions of privilege, or have reaped the benefits of being open early on — when the platform wasn’t as easily used for abuse, and when we were privileged to create the kinds of networks that included others like us.” Cronin concludes:

In summary, openness does not involve a one-time decision, and it is not universally experienced. It is always complex, personal, contextual, and continually negotiated. Attention must be paid to the actual experiences and concerns of students and faculty. Critical approaches are essential.

Re-reading these three articles also gave me insight into why so many of us are rankled by Quallity Matters certification of online courses (see Burtis and Stommel, The Cult of Quality Matters, for an excellent articulation of the concerns). From the QM web site (emphasis mine):

For purposes of protecting the confidentiality of student information, the institution should provide a shell or clone, rather than access to a live course. QM only reviews the design of the course, and reviewers should not be provided the ability to review student activity or information or to have any contact with students in any course submitted for review.

In other words, QM course certification requires that we remove students entirely in order for the review to proceed. The reviewers will look only at the design of the course, a seemingly stand-alone product. The certification is not at all concerned with the actual teaching of the course.

The three articles that we read for our CPLC homework all focus on the particular students in the class and what they bring to the educational endeavor. According to Stager, project-based learning jumps off from each student’s prior knowledge and expertise. According to Goode, interdisciplinarity comes from the students themselves, their fields, experiences, etc. And according to Cronin, responsible open educational practices require careful attention to the actual experiences and concerns of students. It is no wonder that some of us who are committed to the Integrated Cluster Learning Model disagreed with the foundational premises of QM certification.


Image Credit: I took this photo on September 1, 2021

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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