Clusters and Curriculum

Conversations about various aspects of cluster implementation are continuing. Since I last wrote about my personal activities regarding clusters, I have been involved in three conversations that have given me some clarity about the relationship between clusters and our curriculum.

The first of those conversations had nothing to do with curriculum on the face of it. I (and a number of other faculty and guides) met with the founders of a local marketing firm. They are interested being an external partner with us by having our faculty and students work with them on some of their projects. The projects are wide-ranging and I got really excited thinking about all the cool internships that our students, particularly Communication and Media Studies (CMS) students, could complete with them. The firm has projects ranging from web site design and development to brand development to event planning to social media marketing and more. These are areas that CMS students are very interested in. After discussing the things they could use help with, the founders said that they don’t have time to supervise a whole bunch of internships. This is our most common way of getting our students out into the community to gain hands-on experience. But just as scaling up the number of internships students do puts a strain on University resources, it puts a huge strain on the resources of our external partners who work with us to give students these hands-on, “real world” experiences. Since we want more of our students to gain these experiences (one of the major goals of the cluster initiative), we will have to be creative in how we do this scaling up.

So we talked about how we could get a bunch of our students involved in these activities without overburdening the firm. The model we discussed involves the firm working really closely with faculty members so that the faculty thoroughly understand the tasks and activities involved in a particular project. The faculty member would then decide how to engage an entire class in those tasks and activities. The faculty member and the students would check in with the firm a couple of times a semester to share what they’ve done. In other words, the faculty member is the “supervisor” for the students in the class as they do the work involved in the experience. The members of the firm would mostly interact with the faculty member with just a couple of check ins to give feedback to the entire class about the work they’ve done up to that point. This model for hands-on, “real world” experiences is much more scalable for both the external partner and for PSU since the faculty member will be working with teams of students rather than individual students. I’m really interested in figuring out the best ways to implement such a model.

The second conversation about curriculum was a continuation from last spring when the chairs of the department who have programs in the Arts and Technologies cluster began to discuss the cluster initiative. One of the things we were most excited about regarding the cluster initiative was creating more opportunities for our students to collaborate with each other in ways that allowed them to combine their individual disciplinary knowledge and skills to work on projects. We thought that providing such opportunities in classes was probably the easiest way to ensure that large numbers of our students were able to take advantage of the opportunities. Further, we thought that putting students from our various disciplines together into common General Education (GE) courses would be a relatively easy place to start. Recall that the GE Directions component is a set of courses that focuses on basic skill development (reading, writing, speaking and listening, using information technology, etc.). The Gen Ed Handbook then describes the Connections component of GE: “Inspired by Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) model, ‘Connections’ courses are designed to integrate skill development into the major.” In other words, the Connections courses are designed to bring the GE skills into the majors courses, making connections between GE and the major. Since one of the stated goals of the cluster initiative is to integrate GE and the major and this is what the Connections courses are designed to do, it made sense to us to start moving our curriculum toward a cluster focus by looking at Connections courses. As we talked about the various Connections courses we all offer, we realized that each program in the cluster has a Technology in the Discipline Connections (TECO) course in which we discuss very similar topics. We’re now talking about developing a common TECO course for all the disciplines in the cluster. Each semester, we would offer numerous sections of the course, each taught by a faculty member from a different discipline within the cluster. Students could sign up for any of the sections offered to fulfill their TECO requirement. For example, if I (from Communication and Media Studies) teach a section of the course, I will have Graphic Design majors, Theater majors, English majors, Media Studies majors, etc. all in the same course. And if Matt Kizer (from Theatrical Design-Technology option) teaches a section of the course, he too will have Graphic Design majors, Theater majors, English majors, Media Studies majors, etc. in the course. When students work together on projects from the course, they will be in interdisciplinary teams, each bringing their own disciplinary knowledge and skills to the project. We’re excited about the idea and looking forward to figuring out how to implement it.

The third conversation regarding curriculum was perhaps the most enlightening and was certainly the most wide-ranging in terms of its consequences. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m working with a group of guides and members of the GE committee to think about the First Year Seminar and General Education and their relationship to clusters. The last time I wrote about this topic, I reported on a meeting the group had with President Don Birx about the First Year Seminar (FYS). This week, the group met with Don again, but this time we talked about his ideas concerning GE (which he wrote about here). I think I understand most parts of his vision but thought I’d write about it to be sure. I should also point out that Don is very clear in saying that these are just ideas and that the faculty is in control of what actually happens with GE and the FYS.

Don envisions that students will take a FYS that will acquaint the students to “cluster learning.” We asked him what he means by that phrase and he said cluster learning is focused on integrative thinking while working on project-based activities that require innovation and entrepreneurship in order to move towards a solution as well as a more general learning about the cluster that they are currently working in. (This is my paraphrase of what he said so I hope I got it right.) We talked quite a bit about the “integrative thinking” part of his explanation. (By the way, as this initiative moves forward, we are talking about a lot of different kinds of thinking and we aren’t always being clear what we mean. For example, even in this conversation with Don, we discussed integrative thinking, critical thinking, and creative thinking, mostly without defining what those things are. For my own understanding, I’m working on a blog post to try to clarify what we might mean by those, and other, types of thinking.) For Don, integrative thinking is how we will help students pull together the different knowledge and skills that they are learning at PSU. So each FYS will focus on a broad theme, problem, or challenge. Students will choose a FYS that is somehow related to their interests. In the FYS, the students will work with the faculty member, other students, and potentially external partners to address some aspect of the theme, problem, or challenge presented by the FYS. In addition, the FYS will provide experiences that help the student to plan their educational journey over the course of their time at PSU.

Don has also talked quite a bit about “theming” GE. In particular, he is interested in making sure that students understand the connections among their various GE courses. The idea is that the faculty will identify a set of GE courses that are related to each other in some way and attach a micro-credential (probably a certificate) to that set of classes so that when a student completes that set of courses, it is noted on their transcript. After the meeting, I tried to think of an example of what he was talking about and came up with the idea of a Digital Media Production certificate just from classes offered by the Communication and Media Studies department. A student could take CMDI1200 (Web Expressions which is a Creative Thought direction course), CMDI2100 (The Digital Imagination which is also a Creative Thought direction course), and CMDI2200 (Science of Animation Programming which is a Scientific Inquiry direction course) which are very related to each other in that they are all about creating digital media products. Of course, most of these certificates are likely to include classes from multiple disciplines. My colleague Annette Holba came up with quite a few ideas about possible certificates using existing GE classes from multiple disciplines in just a few minutes of thinking about the issue.

In discussing these certificates, we pointed out to Don that we already do a version of this kind of “theming” when we create majors and minors as well as when we designate a set of courses as fulfilling a particular Direction requirement. For example, the CMS department has a minor in Digital Media Design and Development. The faculty in the department have designated the courses in that minor as having some things in common so that when a student takes all of the required courses, they will get a credential (the minor). And yet, too often, the students don’t see the connections that the faculty do. That is, theming shows that faculty understand the connections between courses but says nothing about whether the students understand those connections. What, we asked, will be different about the kind of theming that he’s talking about and the kind of theming that we already do? In other words, what will we be doing differently in this new kind of theming that will help the students to understand and be able to articulate the connections that the faculty see among the specified courses? That’s when Don brought up his idea of a GE capstone course.

The goal is for students to be able to talk about the connections that they see among their GE courses. We would also like them to be able to articulate the connections between their GE courses and their majors. Don sees this happening in a GE capstone course where the students continue working on a project, maybe the same project that they started working on in the FYS or maybe not. But the capstone is designed to help students explore the connections among their GE courses and between their GE courses and their majors. Interestingly, our current GE program already has such a course. The Integration Connection (INCO) was designed to be the place where integration of GE occurred. In fact, the General Education Handbook says, “The integration course is a General Education capstone course, taken in the junior or senior year.” I think we’ve mostly lost our understanding of the INCO course being a capstone but we could easily rethink those courses to be more project based and more intentional in their attempts to integrate GE. We could also add activities, probably related to the project, where students are intentionally combining their GE skills and knowledge with their major’s disciplinary skills and knowledge. For my example of the Digital Media Production certificate, I realized that my department offers several courses that could serve as a capstone, one of which is already an INCO (CM3850 Game Design and Development).

We also talked about a second way to help the students to make these kinds of connections We need to change some of what we do in these classes (just a little bit). If the instructors of the courses included in a particular certificate talked with each other about the content of what they do in their courses, they could talk about the connections with their students on a regular basis. These regular conversations among the faculty and with the students would go a long way toward helping students understand and be able to articulate these connections themselves. If we wanted to make larger changes, the students in these related courses could regularly work on projects together, further solidifying the connections between the courses. We could also think about creating cohorts so that a group of students shared a group of GE courses in a particular semester so that they saw each other more regularly and worked on projects across their classes together.

I think Don’s ideas about how to change General Education so that it more closely aligns with the work we want to do with the clusters is interesting and potentially exciting. Interestingly, I think his ideas match really well with the original intentions of our GE program. But his ideas take us further in making GE meaningful to our students which is one of the stated goals of the current GE program.

 

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