Hackathon for Blended Learning 101

Lately, the big question[s], I am grappling with have to do with notions of learning community or learning webs:

  • what conditions are necessary for learning webs or communities to work?
  • why do we care about webs, networks and communities for learning, and how do we make that explicit to learners?
  • why would learners care about webs, networks and communities for learning – what would they need to know to help them decide whether or not to care?

I plan to explore these questions over a couple of posts. Starting with a course design project that I am working on with students.

The project is to make space (and provide guidance/mentorship on the design process) for a group of 7 students to design a short 2 week orientation course to prepare them to participate in a blended learning physics class. We’re calling it Blended Learning 101. I’m collaborating with Lucas Wight (for edX expertise) and Noureddine Elouazizi (for the Science and research context). We had some constraints:

  • time: we have three days with students to accomplish 90% of the build.
  • platform: we needed to use edX – given UBC’s new collaboration for open/flexible course development.
  • re-use: it has to be easily adaptable to other contexts (outside of physics)
  • community: one of the goals was to build a framework that would support the development of a learning community

My role in the hackathon was to guide the students through a design process. In the past, I had used a pared down versions of Stanford’s d-school (design school) bootcamp, so I decided to stick with that. The bootcamp includes some really great principles/mindsets to work from (including focus on human values, embrace experimentation, be mindful of process, etc,). I also appreciate their framework for the design process as follows:
design framework

The aspect of empathy building is so important to the process – through interviews with each other, students learn about different perspectives, values and approaches to learning. Discussion and debriefing of the process has led to some pretty important insights/questions as you can see below.

Learner Attributes 1

Learner Attributes 1

list of learner attributes

Learner Attributes 2

Mindsets about learning

Mindsets about learning

The aspect that students really seemed to get stuck on (when it came time to start building the course) was the aspect of learning community. Questions emerged like:

  • why would learners participate in a community, for just one course?
  • why would people want to interact with large, unknown groups of people when it can be so intimidating?
  • why would anyone want to use Twitter for networking – isn’t it just for celebrity gossip?

We spent some time talking through these questions, and deciding an approach for the first iteration, then revisit. It was helpful to have the visual map of #TWP15 Twitter connections to show them what was possible when a learning network was actively sharing.

Back to the questions I started out with in this post:

  • For learning webs to work (at least for new undergraduates) I think the value and rationale and relationship to learning needs to be made explicit in order to motivate learners to take a risk and try it out.
  • It helps to have enough people on the network, beyond a typical course enrolment, to make for rich interactions. That’s the only way learners will stay engaged.
  • As mentors/instructors/guides, it helps for us to model (through our own interactions/participation its value (sharing links, posing questions, commenting, bringing in new networks/people with a common interest.

Not quite sure how we help learners begin to see themselves as teachers, mentors and guides and view their peers as such. I see this as partly a developmental challenge, but not entirely. Any ideas?

I’m still reflecting on Christina’s course challenge – to build more of a web than a website – and I’m thinking that this is a big challenge for all of us. Many learners got to university not by collaborating, sharing and connecting – but by competing, keeping their heads down and grades high. Beyond building a web, maybe we’re supporting a shift in values.

image of book How Learning Works with sicky note attached

Show Me the Learning

In an attempt to illuminate the “black box” it seems every few years, someone takes a crack at explaining exactly how learning works. Advances in brain science have helped illuminate some of the mechanics involved and generations of psycho-educational research and evidence based theory have helped us understand how to create effective learning environments. But inspiring learning in our students is something more personal. Earlier this year in his blog post “Why Good Classes Fail“, Prof. Michael Wesch proposes that empathy is at the core of any encounter with students that has the potential to inspire.

Recently, I organized a panel of students to speak with a room full of new Faculty during an orientation to teaching session at UBC. I asked them to come prepared with 2 things:

  • a story about a faculty member who had an impact on their learning
  • a piece of advice about teaching

Here are a few snippets (as close to the original sentiment as my notes and recollection will allow):

Impact on learning:

my prof. gave me the confidence that “I can learn this” – when I was struggling. He did this during office hours by helping me use what I already know to solve more complex problems.

as an international student, there were many ways of doing things (such as receiving critique on artwork) that were new to me. My prof. took the time to explain this is why we approach critique in this way – explaining why (instead of assuming we all knew) gave me a new perspective.

posing real problems and giving me time to solve them through experimentation was important to me. Sometimes I just can’t relate to the theory – it doesn’t make sense – then the practical application makes it all come together.

my prof. surprised me by speaking Chinese (he was clearly not Asian) and telling stories from history using different voices – kind of acting in a way and sharing his passion for the stories he was telling. He was entertaining and really engaging.

we had the chance to learn (in groups) about each other and where we were from and how our experience of place had an impact on our learning. My prof. seemed to get that this was important.


  • be yourself
  • see more in us than we see in ourselves
  • surprise us
  • give us time/take time
  • give us real problems to solve
  • make time for experimentation
  • take a risk
  • consider impact of place and “where we come from” on learning
  • encourage us to learn from each other
  • consider how hard it is to learn in a language that is still new- post your notes for us to review unfamiliar terms

We had just spent the morning with faculty, working through case studies to highlight principles of learning described in Ambrose et al’s How Learning Works and the students made these principles come to life – unintentionally touching on each one through their stories. Perhaps the faculty members that the students described had well thought out strategies, objectives and plans for how they were going to teach their classes. But what the students’ shared highlighted something more basic – the qualities that inspire learning: simple caring, attention, interest, openness, empathy, encouragement and passion for discovery. Interesting that most of the stories of “impact” that the students shared had, at their core, authentic human encounter as the common denominator.

Empathy and Digital Citizenship

the word empathy

From Flickr by marleneangeja

I feel like sounding an alarm bell on this one.  Our collective capacity for empathy seems to be diminishing and the evidence is mounting.  Consider the recent Vancouver story of a brutal rape that was photographed  by a bystanding teen and shared on Facebook. What was he thinking?  Or was he? Clearly, the lack of empathy he displayed is shocking.  What’s equally disturbing is the rate at which empathy seems to be declining among young people.  Dr. Sarah Konrath (University of Michigan), recently presented a study of empathy among nearly 14,000 college students in the U.S. which found that students are much less empathic than they were 30 years ago:  40% less on some measures and in rapid decline since 2000.  The study has since been reported in the New York Times and the Globe and Mail.

As expected, there is speculation that social media is at least partly to blame – given that it makes it easy for us to disengage with  or tune people out when we feel like it – without the same level of social consequence as there might be if you did the same thing in person. This seems like an easy out and a gross simplification of the problem – which, I suspect, has many roots.  What scarier to me is that we, as a society, may have a tendency to slip into a collective coma and just avoid the challenge that faces us in turning this around.

Here are some of the opportunities we have to shift this:

I feel that we should consider including empathy in our list of 21st century skills as a distinct category. Goleman’s (1995) research suggests that empathy is positively related to intrinsic motivation and effective problem-solving. The need for empathy is increasingly important in the workplace where teamwork and social competencies are a critical factor in success.

  • spend time with the young people in our lives and get to know about theirs.  How do they feel about some of the stories they hear in the news (like the one I mentioned earlier in this post)?  How are they and their friends showing that they care about each other when something bad happens to one of them? How are they using social media and what do they share about each other?

And,  since empathy needs to be practiced in order to develop, it needs to be practiced everywhere, including the online spaces we occupy.  Maybe we need to expand the concept of digital citizenship and some of the work on the nine elements to include empathy in digital spaces – what does that look like? What’s important about taking the perspective of the other before you press upload or send?  How will you defend your choices to share information about someone else?

In our recent discussions with student teachers as part of our Digital Tattoo project, we know that the concept of digital citizenship is new to them and they are not entirely sure that they have a responsibility to teach this – nor are they sure that parents support it.  The teaching of empathy has a longer standing tradition in the public school system – maybe we need a way to bring the two together?