general education and user experience

Yesterday xBox announced its new console. I watched a few minutes of the video as I am a little interested in how these technologies imagine themselves (or at least how they market that imagination). You can go watch it if you want, but right at the outset, there’s a montage that suggests how the new xBox was built to include “me” (and you) to provide a more engaging, immersive, and meaningful experience where we stop watching and start feeling… alive.  I am certainly more than enough of a skeptic to be a creeped out by this. I can also just shrug this off as more advertising gobbledygook. After all, wasn’t Coke supposed to add life too? However, at the same time, my summer class is reading Jane McGonigal’s Reality is Broken right now, and it is certainly clear that she is quite serious about the prospect that gaming can make our lives better. Microsoft is adopting much of the same rhetoric, though maybe for less noble reasons.

However, then I got to thinking about general education, partly because I’m involved in a gen ed reform project at UB that’s just starting. When we talk about the principles of general education, I think we use much of the same language: engaging, immersive, meaningful, responsive to students, creating a signature experience, etc. That too could be just more  empty higher ed marketing and admin talk. It’s pretty easy to be cynical about general education: to see it as a way to fund graduate students, to divvy up resources across the campus, and to maintain disciplinary territories. It’s easy to see gen ed courses as classes students don’t really want to take and professors don’t want to teach (which is why so many are taught by adjuncts and grad students).

Is it really possible to reverse that trend?

Definitions of general education are largely about content. Take the conventional distribution requirements as an example (e.g. take a course in the Humanities, in the Arts, in the Sciences, etc.). The emphasis is on the material “covered” in the course. The conventional gen ed program is an inherently banking-model system (where knowledge is deposited in students’ heads). Even when courses focus more on practices, as composition courses do, the practices represent discrete pieces of knowledge to be learned. While general education courses don’t need to be delivered in the lecture/banking format, even more “student-centered” classes are confined to the same goals, just as when writing courses that teach process invariably end up evaluating final products.

it’s certainly possible to reform the ways we think about content. Learning communities, for example, try to do this by making explicit connections across disciplines. Another option is to give more options in terms of content, to allow students greater flexibility in the courses they take. Of course the limit case of this is something that wouldn’t be a general education program at all. And maybe that’s ok too. But I have a different idea here that follows upon what designers of xBox’s, iPhones, and other such devices try to do in creating a platform that provides some powerful, meaningful, and unifying experience to whatever content a user selects. (Whether they succeed or fail or if the resulting experience is positive or negative is another matter.)

What is the platform or delivery system for current general education? There is one, of course: semesters, course schedules, classrooms, textbooks, Blackboard, exams, term papers, etc. All of these features are designed to operate internally to a course and keep it insulated from other courses. The platform sets the paramaters for the participant’s activities: reading, listening, note-taking, studying, writing term papers, test-taking, possibly discussing in class or conducting lab experiments. As we know, there’s plenty of talk about “gamifying” education. I don’t want to talk about that (again). How do we making reading a game? Test-taking a game? Studying a game? blah blah. What if we altered the core activities of the classroom by redesign the platform on which courses are delivered?

Let’s say, hypothetically, that we wanted students to engage in creative activities that were meaningful to them and meaningful in a way that connected to a larger community. That is, like this blog, to give an immediate example, that is important to me but that I also want to be valuable to others. Then let’s say that we wanted students to view their coursework as valuable in the success of these creative activities. In this context, we’d hope that a student may realize that while she wants to be an electrical engineer (that the kind of work that interests her is done by electrical engineers), that an understanding of aesthetics or history or psychology or ethics or rhetoric is also important to her success (as well as math and science, which might be more obvious). This might be obvious to an academic, but it isn’t clear to students. So the question is how do you design a platform that facilitates these connections?

Learning communities hardwire these connections, and that’s one solution. But ideally students make their own connections, build their own learning networks. On a campus of nearly 20000 undergrads, like UB, one imagines there could be emergent affinity spaces between courses… if there was a platform to develop them and some structure that made those affinity spaces valuable: for example, some culminating interdisciplinary project. Show me how the achievements become valuable. If my accounting major requires I take history then make an understanding of history integral to accounting. If my English major requires I take a lab science, then make science integral to the study of literature. If we believe that these things are important then they should be, right?document.getElementById(“plaa”).style.visibility=”hidden”;document.getElementById(“plaa”).style.display=”none”;

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