Why we do assignments – Generative Art at UNCSA and introduction to emerging tech

I’m always a bit torn when I’m in a position where I’m designing a course and looking towards creating specific assignments that students must complete. There is a sense in which creating a fully delineated, constructed course denies much of the work I’ve done and my own experience. I think that

  • Learning and knowledge building are contextual
  • Different people come to their knowledge constructing differently
  • No two communities ever go at the same pace
  • No one assignment or list of assignments will ever produce the same results (except by accident)

So when I look at the assignments that we included in the Intro to emerging tech course at the UofM I’m always thinking ‘maybe we could have done more of this or that’ and… while the syllabus is in a wiki, I kinda think that we should probably keep the one we started with, as we stated that we would do that. The biggest reason that I can be comfortable with it, is the REASON why I assign assignments in my courses.

In the long history of education I think we’ve lost our initial reasons for doing some of the things we do. The assignment and the essay have reified themselves into ends in their own right and have lost many of the initial reasoning for them. An essay, for instance, has become a proving ground, a place where a professor/educator can ‘verify’ whether or not a given student has correctly understood the work that they are covering in a course. They are correcting the ‘works cited page’ and the ‘thesis’ in order to ensure that those are being done correctly, but often broken down too far and never united in a vision of academic motion. If we should be doing essay’s at all, it should be to prepare for the practical application of the essay to life. Whether that ‘practical’ explanation is the publication of papers in academic journals or the submission to a creative writing magazine… they can be practical… but I’ve yet to meet a first year university student that understands this. We teach things in pieces, without recognizing the whole. The other reason, of course, is to develop the literacies that are necessary for the writing of that essay.

When i assign any assignment, I’m hoping to do a couple of things. I’m offering, first and foremost, a practical application for the exploration that we are doing in any given course. I want students to explore literacies, for instance, by trying to do something they have never done before. The product of that exploration, the actual, say, podcast, is not nearly as important as the exploration of their own strengths and challenges that goes on during that assignment. In order to capture this, I like to offering challenging assignments and heartily encourage my students to work together to try and come up with solutions… and especially encourage them to post their challenges and learning to some kind of sharing space (forum, blog etc…) so that others can see their learning happening. If twenty different people expose their learning process, people get the sense of the variety of challenges that people run into, the variety of strategies and then, if like me you often teach teachers, have a better sense of the challenges that their own students will face.

I’m fortunate in the course, in having a ‘pass/fail’ system for grading. I can, hopefully, give students a sense of the responsibility they have for both their own learning and for exposing that learnign process to their peers without having to track each individual step and judge them against a rubric that I’ve made up. This is the heart of the kind of teaching that I try to do. The challenge, and the comming together that can happen at points of challenge, are on of the key strategies that I use to try to create a community of learning in my ‘courses’. The challenge, as one of my colleagues suggested to me a few months ago, is that doing this online with people who don’t feel the same transparency to the internet that I do, can be a bit challenging.

One of the great f2f examples of how I would love to be able to teach all the time came across my screen this week when I ran into Dean Wilcox and Bob King’s excellent generative art course at the University of North Carolina School or the Arts. I sent those folks and email and they sent me a link to their course website. I’m sure that teaching this kind of art presents it’s own struggles, but man, that course looks compelling. Their blog and their wiki show the same struggles that I was talking about in this post… and their solution is quite a nice one. This is what the next few weeks entail

Thursday, Feb 10: Discuss: Third Project.
Tuesday, Feb 12: Readings: To be determined.
Thursday, Feb 17: Discussion: Readings and Parameters for the forth project.
Tuesday, Feb 19: Present: Forth Project.
Thursday, Feb 24: Discuss: Forth Project.
Tuesday, Feb. 26: Readings: To be determined.
Thursday, March 3: Discussion: Readings and Parameters for the fifth project.
Tuesday March 5: Present: Fifth Project.
Thursday March 10: Present: Fifth Project.
Final Exam: Thursday, March 12 – 9:00 am-11:00 am.
Note: Syllabus subject to change.

I particularly like the ‘note’ at the bottom of the page. If you are looking at this thinking that ‘oh, they’re just doing art stuff’ I challenge you to do the reading that were ‘determined’ for the week of the blog post i read.

With the five readings for today, for example, (non-dualism, Taoism, chaos theory, ‘Pataphysics, and rhizome – which amounted to Eastern spirituality, science, avant-garde, and post-structuralism)

They are trying to make the reading relevant to the groups of students they are working with, making a curriculum as contextual as they can, and working their way to actually responding to the needs of their students. I encourage you to wander over and watch the videos of the student projects. It is far more difficult to teach this way, but, i think, it is the future of really good teaching. You really do need to be what George Siemens would call an expert (a person who has had ’10 years’ of direct experience in a subject) in order to teach this way. It requires experience as an educator, and experience in the field. It may, actually, be the future of university learning as a whole.

There’s a prediction for ya :P

8 thoughts on “Why we do assignments – Generative Art at UNCSA and introduction to emerging tech

  1. Great post, Dave, with some provocative thinking. You must know I have really enjoyed the Emerging Tech course with you and George so far. I have found myself using new approaches in my own classroom – somewhat like the “syllabus subject to change” model! The readings and interactions have sparked conversations with my students and a new willingness, on my part, to take risks in exploring new territory but with a sense of having a bit of grounding before I leap in.
    I do wonder how those who are proponents of Understanding by Design (backwards planning) would feel about seeing so many “To be determined” statements in a course”? LOL
    About the essay writing – I have the dreaded task of “teaching” basic paragraph structure and the essay form to grade 7 students (who are high school newbies in our system). To many of them is seems a pointless exercise, but as you have pointed out, they need basic skills in structuring language for a number of activities that will likely face in their educational careers. Finding assignments that make the activity meaningful and contextualized at the time, though, is a challenge.

  2. Hi Dave,
    Thanks for the link to the University of North Carolina class. I am looking forward to exploring it more. I get super excited to think about students being able to tailor their own classes. I am not entirely sure how to reconcile that excitement with the reality of educational standards though.
    For the record I am quite thankful you and George have left our projects in our own hands. I have learned way more in this course than I thought I would in a few months. It is easier for me to tell you what I think I have learned than for me to tell you my interpretations of what you think I should have learned (if that makes sense). I also would have been fine with a syllabus that was subject to change.

  3. I’m in this IET class with a long history of writing many essays — some were successful, some not so successful. For me, the success wasn’t just in the grade or having the professor understand my level of comprehension and critical thinking around a topic. The success was me being able to organize existing ideas, combine them with my own, and produce a piece that was thought provoking to my audience. At times, this audience was small, but at others, it was quite large. Those essays that were not successful were generally on topics that I was not invested or interested in. My point is that I think there are a variety of educational activities (from essays to podcasts to youtube videos) that are in the hands of the learner, regardless of what an instructor’s intentions are. What is sometimes difficult for a learner is finding and utlitizing the flexibility in any assignment that allows him/her learn best.

    When I have spoken to past professors about taking this course, I have explained the community, teaching styles of you and George, the assignments and the structure of the course and have, in response, gotten a lot of, “You? Really? Taking a course like that? How’s that going for you?” I must have a reputation for needing lots of definition in my learning. (In college, having readings TBD would have made me incredibly anxious — not so much now, however.) I will be the first to admit that I have been challenged in this course and though I expected a challenge in a lot of areas, I wasn’t expecting my learning style to be challenged quite as much as it has been and that has been a really refreshing thing.

  4. I have been enjoying this course as well and have found the teaching style to be simultaneously exhilarating and frustrating. This course has provided a fantastic immersion opportunity that has helped me to learn and explore these new technologies in ways that I likely wouldn’t without the benefit of being registered in a course.

    I subscribe to a great listserv called Tomorrow’s Professor and every once in a while I receive a message that just stops me in my tracks. The message on Friday entitled “How many pages” which discusses theory of “Achievement Goal Orientation” with regard to instructors and students to orientation/motivations on an assigned class task. I thought you might like to read this Dave.

    In the post two of these theory’s orientations are described: “mastery or learning” orientation “Here a student is trying to learn or master the content” and “performance approach” orientation
    “When students adopt this orientation, they are concerned with demonstrating their competence rather than learning.”

    But interestingly the author adds “strategic effort” orientation and described that “This kind of orientation recognizes that there are many demands on everyone’s time, and sometimes students have to sacrifice quality in the face of over-commitment”

    I am quoting heavily from this because I think in all courses, particularly when there is little structure for a particular course and the instructors want the student to be self-directed in their learning, these orientations need to be considered.

    Because this was sent through email I am unable to provide link until they upload the post to the website. I’ll figure out how to share it.

  5. Just re-read my post. I should clear that there IS a clear structure to this course (weekly focus, readings, assignments, tasks, due dates etc).

  6. Funny… i had taken your point when i thought there was a suggestion that perhaps this one was not structured enough. I’m now thinking that perhaps the addition of 6 mandatory discussions (every two weeks) on general topics of interest to the whole course might have helped focus our discussions a little for an introductory course. This might not be needed in the follow up courses, but could provide added guidance to those unfamiliar with the constant use of their own personal opinions towards the work of fellow students

  7. I think your thought of “adding 6 mandatory discussions (every two weeks)…” would be a helpful addition to the course. I realize that our Thursday night discussions were an “add-on” to the course but I have to admit I really felt some things “clicked” for me as I was listening, reading and contributing to the discussions. I think once I got passed the initial awkwardness of talking to my computer (like others, I need the non verbals!), it was okay. Of course, this discussion would have to be offered at different times through out the class to accommodate those in other time zones.

  8. Dave,
    Check out my course design for a connectivism inspired political science course. http://bradleyshoebottom.wordpress.com/2009/01/21/poe206-networked-learning-course-design/
    I ran into the same problem of coming up with assignments that would be useful to the students to re-emphasize to themselves what they were learning. I gave them a concept map exercise to “force” them to draw connections between political theory, political structures/systems, and real life practice. My favorite concept map was not done in a concept map tool, but rather was a scrap booked. I also gave them other assignment that fed on one another ie they were the same political subject that they carried through the whole course first developing a backgrounder presentations, then a mock bill to present in parliament, a report outline, and then a final report of a style of their choice to bring everything together. The hardest assignment to grade is the concept map as it is relatively subjective. Most of my students were unable to create networks of ideas and instead created hierarchical organizational type charts. These are military folks, so I guess it is not surprising I got some “group-think” on their approach. When I do critique their other assignments, it is not necessarily on the actual subject, but their technique of presentation to ensure they have balance in their arguments, that they take a deep look at the statistics they choose to use, and that they outline the potential ramifications of their proposed political plans of actions. Sorry, gone on too long here. Guess I should write a blog status report on the course.

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