The Living Course


Ethnic studies professor Jun Xing discusses Web links with University Honors College student Katherine Parker as they collaborate on a “living course” on Chinese ethnicity and heritage. (Photo: Evelyn Reynolds, Center for Teaching and Learning)

September 15, 2008

Where Socrates meets YouTube

By Lee Sherman

Those massive, monolithic intro courses — mainstays of big universities — are undergoing a metamorphosis in Corvallis.

OSU is re-envisioning the age-old practice of packing 200 or 300 students into a warehouse-sized classroom where they rarely interact with their professor or each other. Mega-classes may be necessary, but they don't have to be impersonal and alienating, argues Peter Saunders, director of OSU's Center for Teaching and Learning. By tossing out the old read-and-regurgitate paradigm, that creaky vestige of a bygone era, and designing courses around 21st-century technologies, instructors can breathe new life into large classes, he says. In what Saunders calls a "living course," instruction is grounded in the great pedagogic traditions with a foundation in Socratic dialogue and a narrative thread of questioning and critical thinking. But it's a tradition with a twist: The give-and-take happens mainly in cyberspace.

Everyone who's taken an intro class remembers the drill: sit among the multitudes, listen to a professor who seems remote and unapproachable, read a dry textbook, memorize enough material to pass a multiple-choice exam, and rarely connect with your classmates. A bland syllabus lists requirements and assignments.

Jump into a Learning Community

Now look in on General Microbiology (MB 302) as newly designed by OSU senior instructor Linda Bruslind. When students log on to the course Web site, they encounter Bruslind's unique, engaging, sometimes quirky perspective on a tough subject. The syllabus, once a piece of paper to stuff in a backpack, has become multifunctional: an instructor's story, a students' forum and a springboard into the course content. Beyond the silent, still pages of a textbook, students can jump into the lively universe of microbiology from carefully selected Web links embedded in Bruslind's clever prose ("What is a genome? No, no, it's not the little clay figure that your grandmother has in her garden") where she invites them to share her personal passion for the mysteries of microbes ("Welcome to the wonderful world of genomics!"). Genetic engineering on YouTube? You bet. Cool animations of plasmids in the process of conjugation? Sure thing. And instead of slumping in the back of the class wondering if the teacher will ever cover their pet topic — glow-in-the-dark bacteria — they can use the syllabus to find simpatico classmates for joint explorations.

"In the living course, the syllabus becomes a learning platform," says Saunders. "It becomes a portal through which students can interact with the material, with the instructor, with each other and with communities around the world."

Based on a more limited model developed by geology professor Mark Wilson of The College of Wooster in Ohio, Saunders' living course transforms the static, sit-and-take-notes classroom into a dynamic, multi-directional community of learners. By tapping into three rich veins — the professor's subject-matter passion, the student's personal learning style and the Web's social networking power — a living course can foster potent, highly personalized interactions and explorations despite an unwieldy class size. The result: learning experiences that are more satisfying, engaging and longer lasting. "Such engaged learning experiences support deeper learning and better retention of information," Saunders explains.

Coming This Fall

This transformation is the latest step in the evolution of high-tech education at OSU. It coincides with the university's leadership in open-source software, which empowers collaboration at the grass roots, and the rise in online education through both remote (E-campus) and local course offerings. And it got a boost in June when 11 OSU faculty members designed their own living courses in a workshop led by Saunders. Representing an array of disciplines (engineering, ethnic studies, fisheries, food science, microbiology, new media, sociology, teacher education and veterinary medicine), they spent an intense week immersed in the Center for Teaching and Learning's summer institute. (Watch a video about the summer institute.)

In keeping with the two-way paradigm, each faculty member teamed up with a student. Because the living course concept draws heavily on high technology (hyperlinks, wikis, blogs, podcasts, Google Docs) and seeks to reach students in an appealing narrative voice, a youthful perspective is vital. So the institute paired the subject-area expertise of a Ph.D. with the Web savvy of an undergrad or grad student. Together, each team worked to create a course rich in both modern-day context and subject-area content, one that invites exploration and enables connections — student to student, student to teacher, student to content.

"The student assistants served the critical function of reflecting the learning needs of young learners new to a discipline," Saunders says. "These young learners are comfortable in a technologically rich environment, so we want to meet them in that comfort zone."

The Collective Journey

Living courses begin with a journey, the teacher's original narrative (see The Narrative Voice sidebar). Telling stories, drawing analogies, posing questions, creating context, challenging assumptions, linking ideas, building suspense — all of this can be woven into the course narrative as the professor lays out the purpose and scope of the semester's content. An informal tone that employs humor, irony, wonder, outrage, drama, headlines, pop culture, eye-popping statistics, photos and/or graphics helps stimulate thinking and spur curiosity. Some instructors even introduce their course on camera, posting a personalized video clip on the narrative ("Welcome! Here's what we're going to do this quarter and why").

Besides giving students a hook on which to hang their new knowledge, an engaging narrative reveals the personality and passions of the professor, making him or her more human and accessible. Hyperlinks embedded in the narratives (see sidebar "Links for Learning") include audio, video, animation and interaction with relevance to the course. Tracking down these Web links was the main task of student assistants during the summer institute. They scoured the Internet for sites offering high-quality content and peer appeal and then collaborated with faculty members to fold these sites into the narratives.

Hyperlinks encourage students to launch out in any direction, including backward. Many students need to refresh their memories of foundational concepts or fill in basic knowledge gaps. Strategic links can give students quick access to remedial or background content. At the other end of the learning spectrum are students who crave a wider intellectual landscape. Links that extend the lessons can take students to the advanced content they desire.

"The living course is a powerful tool to meet the needs of students at different levels," observes ethnic studies professor Jun Xing, who participated in the summer institute. "It allows students to dig much deeper."

Jun's student partner was Katherine Parker, a history and international studies major in the University Honors College. Collaborating with the ethnic studies professor as he created a new course on Chinese ethnicity and heritage was "right up her alley," she says. "I really appreciated the partnership aspect of the institute. Jun honored my contribution."

But why not just let students find their own supplementary Web content? It's a question of quality, Saunders says. By embedding links in the syllabus (rather than leaving students to stumble around randomly in the ether), the teacher can point students to the very best sites available.

The Social Sphere

The living course is no solitary trip. It offers students a chance to find like-minded peers through a wiki, a collaborative Web site where users can add and edit content (Wikipedia being a well-known example). Students who have a particular interest in some aspect of the subject can reach out and connect with each other and together write a wiki. Not only will it earn them extra points, it will become part of the living course for current and future students. Summer institute participant Niki Schultz proposed to create the "Niki Wiki" for her course on engineering graphics and design.

Students can contribute to the course in other ways, too. For example, in Bill Loges' living course on media in daily life, they will monitor the day-to-day media agenda and post their findings on the living syllabus. "These effects can seem so abstract to students," Loges says. "They don't realize that it's all around them. As soon as they are presented with an example, they just light up."

Communities of Meaning

"Peer learning is so important in higher education," notes Dennis Bennett, assistant director of OSU's Center for Writing and Learning. Citing the knowledge theory developed by Ken Bruffee of the City University of New York, Bennett argues that knowledge is socially constructed and "owned" by "communities of meaning" — insiders who share an understanding of its specialized vocabulary. Outsiders — in this case, students new to the field — often feel disconnected when the teacher plunges right into this unfamiliar vocabulary. Beginning, instead, with familiar lingo and concepts, teachers "meet students halfway," Bennett explains. "Students get more invested in their education."

What makes the living course alive, says Saunders, is content growth spurred by new knowledge. "New information discovered by learners — information that is relevant and academically reliable — becomes part of the course content. In this way the course ‘grows' each semester, and new students learn from the efforts of former students."

In a nation where high numbers of college freshmen drop out, creative course redesign is more critical than ever. The lecture format won't disappear. But in contrast to a purely "stuff-it-and-dump-it" approach, the living course gives students intriguing new ways to jump into the material and make it their own.

The approach poses special challenges for both teachers and students, Bill Loges cautions. "I learned a great deal from the seminar this summer, and I'm grateful to Dr. Saunders and everyone involved in offering the seminar," he says. "But it's important to recognize that living courses make new and unfamiliar demands on professors and students."

Next summer, the Center for Teaching and Learning will begin offering the living course institute to college teachers across the United States.

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