Design. Do. Learn.

paints mixed colorsRecently I’ve been at loggerheads with an administrator at the college over projects, especially <gasp> group projects, in online courses. The projects at issue are not your garden-variety dead tree library research projects – they are authentic tasks embedded in courses with a project/problem-based learning approach. For example, an IT planning course has groups of students develop a strategic plan for an actual client. In an education course, students work in groups to create a multidisciplinary unit plan. Learning by doing rather than by lecture? “Blasphemy!” according to the aforementioned administrator.

Feeling war-torn and weary, I was happy to see a piece by Melanie Kahl on the Mind/Shift blog about a project in Berkeley, California and another in rural Bertie, North Carolina in which students collaborated in community-based, real-world active learning. Emily Pilloton, who has chronicled her experience in a pretty awesome TED Talk says of the projects, “The biggest thing that design gives students is this amazing sense of possibility.” Teachers and students are recast as designers, learning through the process of designing structures for their communities. As students’ eyes open to the possibilities and they realize the difference they can make and all that they can achieve, they become empowered, take ownership, and learning is made personal. Are they all going to become designers? Not likely. But these students will walk away from these experiences with more critical thinking skills, be more willing to take risks, and with a better sense of connection between the content in their courses and the application of it in their community.

When I think about the group projects that the administrator dislikes so vehemently, I see possibilities for students to collaborate in authentic tasks using the tools of today’s workplace, challenged to design a product for real-world use, connecting course content to the task, become agents of their own learning. For these [primarily] nontraditional, adult learners to meet and work together on a face-to-face project would seem more difficult than to share an online workspace with multiple modes of communication at their disposal. Many of these students are enrolled in online courses because they wouldn’t otherwise be able to pursue a certificate or degree. Some of them have struggled throughout their brick-and-mortar school careers. Imagine how we can empower them through the process of design, engaged in active learning, using real-world tools…online. Maybe the administrator doesn’t get it, but I’m encouraged that there are instructors in our college who come to me with these ideas and believe in the power of process.

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