Sunday, January 22, 2012

Close study and cow clicking... #Change11

A thought that resonated with me from Dave Snowden's live session this week in #change11: If instructors identify the learning outcomes for a course too narrowly, we leave no room for independent thought. Thoughtful  instructional design creates a learning environment with room for student exploration and discovery.

Snowden experiments with assessment that privileges original thought, and he talked about a course he teaches in which a substantial part of the grade is dependent on the students' ability to think of things he, the instructor, had not already thought of. Traditional instructional design, including some thoughtful backwards design, does not account for the possibility of student discovery as anything more than an anomaly indicative of "giftedness."
Snowden’s comments support an inquiry-based approach in classrooms, virtual or physical. In my experience as a literacy teacher, one of the strongest models for providing students an opportunity to engage in an exploratory, focused inquiry comes from Katie Wood Ray's Study Driven. Ray advocates for writing instruction based on "close study" of texts, where students deconstruct mentor texts in order to discover possibilities for their own writing. By beginning with the question "What do you notice?" a teacher provides students practice with the transferrable skill of deconstructing a thing in order to identify possibilities for constructing something that might approximate, resemble or surpass the deconstructed model. The teacher guides- a sage alongside- supporting the deconstruction. This type of instruction leaves room for students to discover things that the teacher never noticed about a piece of writing, a genre, or an author's body of work.

That is one way I try to understand Snowden's critique of identifying outcomes prior to instruction. I'm also reminded of a story I read recently in Wired Magazine about Ian Bogost's Cow Clicker, a social media video game he created to demonstrate the pointlessness of social media games. Bogost identified the learning outcomes participants in his game would acheive. By playing his one dimensional, challenge-free, strategy-free game, he reasoned, his audience would both experience and agree with his commentary on social media games. Instead, his game, designed to bore and discourage participants, gained popularity. More important, players commented that Cow Clicker actually involved a deep strategy that escaped the designer, where users found ways to entice other players to click on cows other than their own, discovering ways to manipulate other actors in the network. To his own chagrin, and contrary to his intended outcome, Bogost worked on the game for more than a year to see his experiment through and to meet the consistent demand of the gamers who clicked on cows.

In an online environment, like this MOOC, the feedback learners receive can resemble the feedback in a social media game, quantifiable in blog posts, comments and re-tweets. It is up to the learner to make meaning of it all. Participants might choose to borrow from Katie Wood Ray’s concept of close study, deconstructing and studying the parts of this MOOC we access in order to understand the concepts the course explores in the hopes of reaching new insights, in pursuit of original discovery. 



  1. Hallo Joe, Your blog is an interesting view on USA. instructional design, and a lot of literacy and writing in the curriculum are differences from education in the Netherlands.

  2. As I dip in and out of this Mooc, striving to learn a little and gain more ideas to try, I'm also reminded that lurkers learn a lot too. I may not have made many posts and have contributed in only a few discussions but the process has made me take part in other discussions away from the MOOC. Learners learn in many ways and the lurkers of the web who read without contributing are also learning and designers of learning need to take that into account. But I am also a strong believer in guidance for learners, especially for those who are taking their first steps in learning or in a new area. Scaffolding at the right time and in the right way is so important. #change11

  3. Great posting and thanks for the link to Study Driven. Definitely like the idea of leaving space for the student. No matter how we structure our online courses, over restrictive outcomes force us into building nothing more than assembly manuals. This isn't teaching or empowering the learner (as we are told). It's a game of seeing how little we can allocate to each student and still attain the passing grades that fulfill funding minimums.