a vindicated course design thanks to recent PIL findings

Eight months ago, I was knee-deep in ideas, a variety of literature, and my own frustrations as I tried to figure out how to redesign an online literacy course for the fall. It sounds so simple now: Students use a popular community knowledge site as a vehicle for analyzing, searching, evaluating, and using sources to enhance an article from this site. In the process, they also need to connect their work to broad research ideas and experiences. I sometimes wonder why it took me so long to figure it out–even if I know ideas take time–but it’s nice to have something to recount and celebrate.

I think my breakthrough came when I thought back to my design courses in graduate school that mimicked real project work. I was given a guiding framework for how to build various interfaces, and by the end of each course, I had a tangible work that I was proud of. Having an finished product like that can go a long way in motivating students as well as improving their perception of the value of a course, and I decided to take a similarly approach with their work. Students would complete their projects in weekly stages and have a working product at the end.

I gave them a few tools and ideas to complete each stage (in addition to core content), but just like a real-world project setting, they were not given exhaustive, step-by-step directions. They were allowed to be creative, and they were given near limitless license to do so. In their discussion board, there was sometimes a murmur of them trying to figure out what I wanted or how I wanted it in their projects. But that’s something they needed to figure out. In fact, to drive home this fact, each stage was essentially Pass/Fail – including their final submission. They would not be graded on creativity as long as they accomplished minimum tasks associated with each stage.

It sounds good in theory, but what’s their incentive to truly be creative and “own” their projects? Well, after one term of courses, we saw that choice in of itself goes a long way. Admittedly, allowing students unstructured freedom can be a hard thing to allow as it presents a lot of uncertainty for the instructor too in terms of assessment. Plus, not everyone necessarily takes advantage of the opportunity. But you can’t reach everyone given the assumptions that people make about online courses–and especially one that looks like it’s about something they already know! But I digress.

Practically, students were asked to write about the process of completing each project component. How did they find a topic? What databases did they search? What were they looking for? How did they figure out how to solve formatting problems? Why did they discard or decide to replace a source? They also needed to frame their reasoning in the context of some readings that are assigned from module to module. But the answer to the question of motivation is that these written responses were worth more points than the project itself. They would have a hard time writing these if they didn’t put forth a significant amount of effort.

Communicating to students the reasons for doing all of this was difficulty, and the course ended up being initially frustrating for many. I didn’t give clear criteria for how things would be graded. Some course content or readings came after they had to complete the associated task and left many wondering why. Several tasks appeared arbitrary to them or completing them involved much more work than expected. Why have such a drawn out process?

I was wondering if I had created a monster despite the fact that all of these design decisions were intentional. The ill-structured problem forced them out of their comfort zone and made them figure out how to adapt. And writing about it forced them to reflect and reinforce the big rocks and values in the course (i.e. being exhaustive and exploratory in their solution rather than trying to seek one “right” answer). These were supposed best practices. Still, I was second-guessing myself. There were a lot of problems and obstacles along the way that were discouraging and feedback from even a single student can be dejecting. It’s been both a mentally, physically, and emotionally draining process. In responding to a major concern, I ended up redesigning an entire part of the course the day before it would be open to students after the  course had already begun.

In a somewhat serendipitous turn of events, the latest Project Information Literacy (PIL) report (“How College Graduates Solve Information Problems Once They Join the Workplace”) was officially released right at the end of the pilot offerings of my 7-week course. It’s an inquiry into the expectations of employers and experiences of recent graduates in regard to solving information problems.

While graduates did leverage some competencies gained in college such as synthesis and analysis of texts, employers reported that the finding and discovery process was a significant issue with most of them despite their ease with technology. A few of their specific findings regarding recent hires:

  • seldom engaged in traditional, non-digital research methods
  • tended to try to be “hyper-responsive” in finding answers and sought out the “fastest source”
  • lacked comprehensive as well as “outside the box” approaches to seeking information

While this was just a preliminary exploration that they hope to follow up with a more quantitative study, they did draw out some “optimum competencies” (verbatim):

  1. Engaging team members during the research process
  2. Retrieving information using a variety of formats
  3. Finding patterns and making connections
  4. Taking a deep dive into the “information reservoir”

Suddenly, my work suddenly had external validation! Taking a “deep dive” and many of the other competencies is what I was asking my students to do. And many of them did end up viewing the process favorably. I could now feel pride (well, mostly relief).

Of course, the initial intuitions that helped me take the course in this direction only go so far, and there’s still so much more to be done. It has already started again in a new term with another set of major revisions that were the result of the lessons I learned, and the process starts over with new challenges.

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