This summer I am learning that a format that works for one online class may not work for another. After spending two years refining my multicultural communication class online, I was confident that the format would transfer nicely to the online cultural anthropology class I was developing. Now that we are in the second week of the quarter, I’m finding that is not the case at all. I find it fascinating that problems students are having in the cultural class are not occurring in the multicultural class. The structure of the classes is the same as well as a couple of the assignments that deal with the discussion board. I am trying to figure out the differential.

The GS220 class this past quarter showed me what a real active learning class should be. Having assigned small groups of students to lead discussion for an hour of the two hour period, I expected to use the second half for more lecture-oriented material. Little did I know that students would take this assignment and run with it. For the last half of the quarter I felt almost superfluous as students led and participated in some amazing discussions. I admit that I thought that it was a fluke the first time the discussion took off . Yes, I underestimated the students. Shocking, but it happens. There was such a lively discussion that I decided to just let it go…forget the lecture material. The discussion was much more exciting. The second time it happened I recall thinking, hmm, this is going better than I thought it would. The third time, I knew the students were doing something special. The teams leading the discussion were taking pains to make the discussion inclusive, interesting, meaningful, and fun. I learned some new things from them. I love when that happens.

Then we come to the final projects. Students were required to create a living graph. Partners picked a topic on Mesoamerica and created an evaluative time line. Wow; talk about creativity. One team used Lego™ bricks to build a structure to represent Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital at the time of the Spanish conquest. They acted out the time line using Lego™ figures and plastic dinosaurs (substitute horses). Another team played communicable disease Twister ™. Each color represented a conquest-related disease that was “contracted” when a foot or hand was placed on the circle. When someone fell, they “died” from the disease. Once the audience was familiar with the disease, they were literally walked through the time line which stretched the length of the classroom. Another pair used modern song lyrics to represent their evaluative position on specific events. There were other creative presentations, but I think you get the gist.

So now I know what learning can be like when virtually the entire class takes responsibility for the presentation of the material. This Chinese proverb seems to sum up the experience: “Tell me and I forget, show me and I may remember, involve me and I’ll understand.”

Now the key is to create similar experiences in other classes.

I was reminded today of one of the things I love about Cascadia. As I was walking down the hall, there was a group of students sitting in the vista discussing climate and how weather works. The group work in which students participate is fantastic, whether each student recognizes it or not. When I hear students remark that they hate group work I have to wonder what they are learning outside of the classroom. Is the push for independent success so strong that they can’t fathom working with a group? The majority of us don’t work in a vacuum and the ability to work well with others is key. A colleague passed on an article about a study that indicates employers only think 39% of college graduates are “very well prepared” for teamwork. 17% are not well prepared.* I think I’ll add that to my syllabi in the future.

* Peter D. Hart Research Associates, Inc. 2008. How Should Colleges Assess and Improve Student Learning. Washington, DC: Peter D. Hart Research Associates, Inc., on behalf of The Association of American Colleges and Universities

One of these years I’ll remember to check the latest anthropology news before I actually walk into the classroom. Having just finished discussing primate and hominin evolution, it would have been nice to be able to talk about some of the newest research such as the North American tarsier ancestor and the recent Hobbit debate. I’ve been teaching for a decade now and I wonder when this type of behavior will become second nature. Perhaps if I wasn’t so busy with committee work I’d actually have time to work on my teaching.

I’m engrossed at the moment in creating an online version of my cultural anthropology class. The challenge is to create a class that models the values of a learning college in a virtual environment. It’s difficult to translate the various active learning modalities from the traditional classroom to work in an online classroom. The key is to get the online students to buy into the value…how to get them to see the benefits of increased interaction online. Most students have no problem with the level of interaction I’m looking for if it’s on MySpace or Facebook, but trying to get them to get the same enthusiasm for the virtual classroom is challenging.

I’d like to move away from traditional textbooks. They’re so constraining. I had my class read an ethnography written by a biological anthropologist and they loved it. The best discussion we had all quarter happened today on the last day of class before finals week. I wonder if it’s even possible to get that type of engagement with a textbook. I have yet to see it.