Participatory academic communities

 

 

Or: How might we invite students to take matter(ing) into their own hands?

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It’s been a while since my last blog – and as you can see the language has changed from Danish to English. This is due to a change in perspective, partly amongst my students (as this blog will make a fist stab at explicating), partly with regards to my approach to teaching as a certain way to perform research (with students). However, this is not a guarantee against occasional bilingual shifts back into Danish, as this will surely happen if that makes apparent sense in the given situation (but then, hurray for google translate!).

A while ago we had a Finnish delegation from Unit of Development of Education, Laurea University of Applied Sciences (www.laurea.fi)  visiting our Centre for Teaching Development and Digital Media. They where interested in our ‘best practices of modern, online learning, teaching training and a vision of the online learning future.’ As part of the Finnish visit I was, together with Klaus Thestrup, asked to give my thoughts and take on online education.

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My contribution was twofold – one was a short practice- and product-oriented input entitled ‘Going online: streaming the classroom‘ and the other, which will be the focal point of this blog entry, was entitled ‘Participatory academic communities: making students matter

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What happens if we try to open up the classroom to the everyone, thus, making classrooms pop-up everywhere?

The first input consisted, shortly put, of three slides that presented my experiments and experiences with streaming my teaching out of the classroom, thus, making it potentially accessible to everyone interested on the internet.

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The three slides tries to capture the different iterations of this experiment as well as central potentials and pitfalls that emerges out of the attempt to ‘stream the classroom.’ ‘Streaming the classroom’ is characterised by being a decidedly quick-and-dirty iterative design process, where thing is tried out and then reflected upon.

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Compared with over-polished and complete learning designs, this approach opens the design up to constant and continued alterations where the teacher critically reflects on emerging central potentials and pitfalls as he/she re-design the format together with the students every time something new is tried out.

What happens if we try to welcome students as research compeers, thus, transforming teaching into researching?

My second contribution was of a somewhat more conceptual nature – but nonetheless something I try hard to develop into a teaching philosophy and practice at the moment – it is an approach with the working title ‘Participatory academic communities

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At the moment, I am working on developing and maturing three corners of this teaching philosophy and approach:

Slide08as I am both writing about it theoretically in an effort to develop a concepts for this way of thinking about teaching, and experimenting with it in practice through welcoming students as research compeers in the course ‘Design: theories, methods & practices.‘ The three corners of the conceptual framework are interconnected as ‘enabling students to take matter(ing) in their own hands’ presupposes ‘hooking students up with(in) a multiplicity of domains’ which, again, presupposes ‘designing a boundary-crossing dialectic course for students.’ All in all, the three corners interlock in this first attempt to enrol students as genuine research participants in academic communities.

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First of all, I have tried to experiment with ’emptying the curriculum,’ meaning that the students are not met with a set curriculum content. Rather, they are asked to construct their own curriculum that fit the particular research projects they are working on. Like every other researcher working on a project or on writing an article would do. However, that does not mean there is no compulsory reading material. In the beginning a lot of texts were handed out. But these text were targeted at enabling the students to navigate the overall research fields present in their design challenge such as design thinking, digital literacy, design methods and digital fabrication. All in all, this decision was made to end the reign of the replicating student. If we want research compeers, they should be allowed to seek out the texts and information they find enlightening and relevant in relation to their particular project. So far, students are doing very well in criss-crossing the boundaries between being students, researchers and designers.

Secondly, in order to turn students into research and design compeers, I wanted to set up a context for students that would enable them both to participate in academic communities as well as design in real contexts. Accordingly, I put in some effort and work in order for students to be able to contribute to the Interaction Design and Children Conference 2014 (http://idc2014.org), communicate with the LEGO Foundation (www.legofoundation.com) and be involved in thinking and tinkering within the FabLab@School community and project (https://www.facebook.com/FabLabSchoolDK) – all of which are projects I myself is currently engaged in as a researcher. Furthermore, I asked them to seek out a real-practice context, such as a school or kindergarten, in which they could intervene and implement their thinking and design and thus become actual agents of change. Currently, students are – among other things – struggling with making actual demo-paper contributions to the FabLearn Europe conference (http://fablearn.eu), video-pitches to showcase at the Interaction Design and Children conference while working on creating change through designing in and for real-life contexts with projects such as ‘transforming girls’ relation to physical education,’ ‘transformative school desks for learning’ and ‘making history playful.’ All in all, students has themselves been transformed into online-offline personally committed – for better or worse – compeers. So far, this is also playing out surprisingly well, and students are calling me up whenever they face real challenges in their design or research – otherwise they are working their butts off on their own.

Finally, the design challenge – as a third and fourth point – was set up to ensure that students handed in iterations of their design and research on a regular basis in order for them to not get completely lost and drown in this their first design process. It was also an opportunity for me to get a glimpse of how they were coping as researchers and as designers. It is in relation to these assignments that the bulk of my work is placed in the playing out of the course. I guide them online, try to ensure that they grasp the components of research and design processes and not regress into being replicating students. So, my task as facilitating, guiding, nudging and vigilant supervisor is to direct the students attention towards the spacious frame and its inherent constraints and affordances that will allow them to become (and make others become) 21st century digital & design competent individuals as well as contributor to and creator of participatory academic communities. Here, I am holding my breath as we are together trying to make something happen as it is happening. Like building the racetrack from the car as it is racing.

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 As the above slide, among other things, shows the racetrack are quite literally constructed from the racing car. Looking at the last dot ‘conferences’ we are currently also working towards the FabLearn conference and contemplating taking up Ashoka’s ‘The Re-Imagine Learning Challenge’ coming out of this year’s LEGO idea conference (http://www.changemakers.com/play2learn). Also, the slide gives an overview of the initial aims of hooking students up with each other and external digital and analog design and research communities, practices and context to see if we could make something powerful and transformative emerge. How this goes only time will tell, but it is something still under rapid development. Importantly, the criteria for success will not be whether the students get accepted at the conferences and become future researchers nor whether the students become leading designers making transformative changes within learning contexts. Rather, the important point is that they can see themselves as both if they so desire, and that they feel their contributions could actually matter within both contexts. Which leads us to the final slide.

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This last slide conveys what I would love to offer to students. They might not be interested. They might not be capable. They might drown in the attempt. They might become frustrated or even angry. Or they might just be utterly indifferent to the dream. But that is not important. What is important is the offer and opportunity. An invitation to students to be disruptive and transformative in their thinking, writing and doing – something that might get them hungry for future enterprises to take up on their own. It is an invitation to make something matter – for themselves, for the group, for me, for the academic communities, for real life practices and contexts – something that might make them look upon themselves as agents of change, as someone who matters through taking matter(ing) into their own hands. They have already impacted me – by daring to try, by not having drowned (yet). And they have already impacted the academic communities – by speaking and reaching out, by making it part of their own participatory academic communities they are working hard to construct. And finally, they have shown me that be allowing students to take and make place – to find their own pathways – to make up their own mind – and to make up their own course, project and goals – that they are truly compeers in a joint research venture we have undertaken together. It is teacher-led research and design to be sure, but it is actual research and deign nonetheless. And it is fun and challenging and frustrating and bewildering and entangling and enlightening and everything else real research should be. And we are all holding our breath as we are attempting to survive this dangerous feat: to build a racetrack from within the racing car.

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