Co-creating in the classroom

I’ve been reading a lot lately about participatory experiences in museums and other public institutions. One fascinating idea is that of “co-creation,” in which the organization partners with visitors/patrons to create content.

This is a radical departure from the traditional museum experience in which displays are hand-crafted by subject experts and debut in their final, polished form for passive consumption. After reading about museums in which patrons can propose exhibit ideas, then work alongside staff to make them happen, I wondered if the same ideas could be applied in the (college) classroom.

College students are generally cast in a powerless, passive role. They have paid the entrance fee (tuition), but the design, content, operation, evaluation, and educational goals of the class are entirely out of their hands. A couple of deviations from this pattern that I’ve observed are:

  • Choose Your Own Adventure (as a group): Students vote on a subset of advanced topics to be covered later in the course
  • Student as Presenter: Students each stand up in front of the class and educate their peers on a topic

The latter is, unfortunately, usually seen as an obligation imposed on the student rather than a chance to express a personal interest or satisfy a personal need. Making the topic a wide-open choice makes matters worse, not better. The atmosphere of judgment and evaluation is too strong.

How might we experiment with co-creation? How could students offer input on how to tailor the course for their maximal benefit, in combination with the instructor’s experience and knowledge?

Here are some (untested) ideas for co-creation that I’d like to put out there:

  1. Motivation and content: Instead of assigning tasks that your best guess says will be valuable, take time to find out what students want to get out of the course. Pre-class polls on this subject often fill up with “this class is required for my degree” or “it’s a prereq for something else,” so it may take some prodding to get them to dig deeper to find personal reasons for being there, or things they could get out of it. Examples could help inspire useful answers, especially from previous years’ students. Are there skills they want to gain? Facts they want to know? Methods they want to learn? And why?
  2. Operation: Start the course with a collaborative brainstorm (and whittling down) of what the course rules will be, on the mundane but necessary topics of attendance, turn taking, late assignments, and grading.
  3. Evaluation: Get student input on what they think the weights of the different topics and assignments should be.

These (and similar) ideas could give students agency, investment, and personalization in ways that just aren’t there in most classrooms today. These traits can foster increased learning and retention.

For co-creation to be successful, Nina Simon notes, we must truly value participants’ input. We can’t simplify students into blank slates or empty vessels ready to be filled with our wisdom. That sounds preachy (and it’s not a new idea either), but I think it never hurts to take a moment to share genuine respect for and interest in your students’ individual personalities. Do they have hobbies that relate to the course topic? Do they have prejudices about the subject due to your course’s reputation, a sibling’s experience, or simply the fact that it’s a required class that they would not have chosen on their own?

Stefan Stern warns against expecting the next big thing to spontaneously pop out of co-creative activities. “The real art is in synthesizing all the ideas afterwards and understanding the big, unlooked-for themes that underpin them.” Sounds like good fodder for organizing a syllabus to me!

While relinquishing control can be a little scary and even more chaotic, I think it can also make the teaching process more fun, inspiring, and educational for the educator. Each offering of the class would be different. We assiduously poll students at the end of the term for the highly prized course evaluations. Why don’t we also assess the course’s value by polling the teachers to find out what they learned, or how they benefited?

Human library

What if books were people? Or people were books?

The Human Library is an organization that organizes and inspires events in which participants can “check out” a human Book for a conversation. The Books are people who volunteer to express roles that are often the subject of negative prejudice, like The Police Officer, The Male Nanny, or The Atheist. Readers page through a catalog of Books and choose one to check out.

The University of Arkansas has its Human Library catalog online where you can see more examples. Some that caught my eye are “Come, Learn Braille” and “10 Reasons to See Ukraine.”

I love this idea. I remember the first time that I realized that a written book could have the power to give me experiences that I would never have in my own life. This happened in middle school, while reading Orson Scott Card’s “Xenocide,” which features a main character who has an obsessive-compulsive disorder. This was something I knew vaguely about, but reading Xenocide put me so far into Han Qing-jao’s head that I felt her emotional ups and downs and the pangs of her compulsions. (The fact that these are interpreted as religious imperatives, in the book, made it all the more poignant.)

And if a book could come to life and have an interactive conversation with you, what then? It’s known that real-life contact with someone from a marginalized demographic can change world views and overturn prejudices. Contact with the stranger makes them less strange. Contact with the unknown can also reveal your own previously unknown prejudices.

I expect that reading a human Book is a powerful experience, and the context in which it is framed is brilliant. If you are not already a member of a particular group, you might hesitate to strike up conversation with a Muslim or Jew or Christian or street sweeper or circusmaster or gay parent or grocery bagger — how would that begin? But we are already comfortable with brushing up against Books with very divergent ideas in a Library, where anyone is free to check out anything. And these Books are there because they want to engage in conversation; you need not fear that you are being invasive. Your questions are welcomed.

The Santa Monica public library hosted Human Library events in 2008 and 2009, and Loyola Marymount University had an event in 2012. I’ll have to keep my eyes out for other Human Library events so I can try one out in person!

All of human knowledge in ten categories

How can you organize all of human knowledge? Or at least the parts that people put into books, movies, CDs, ebooks, and other media?

I find the subject classification systems used by library catalogers fascinating from this perspective. What a daunting challenge, to come up with an ontology that is both sufficiently comprehensive yet not overwhelming, and simultaneously something that everyone else will agree with. The Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC) system was invented by Melvil Dewey in 1873 and it is *still* in use by libraries (albeit with updates and modifications). It is still used despite general recognition that it is exceedingly Eurocentric and exhibits other biases — but it now has the weight of history behind it, and changing your subject classification scheme is a huge endeavor, and no one else has come up with something better.

Or have they? In 1897, Herbert Putnam came up with a different ontology (LCC, Library of Congress Classification). Both systems are now maintained by the Library of Congress. Public and school libraries mainly use DDC, while academic and government libraries use LCC. Why?

From What’s so great about the Dewey Decimal System?:

The organization of the LC was primarily focused on the needs of Congress, and secondarily towards other government departments, agencies, scholars, etc. So more space is allowed for history (classes C to L) than for science/technology (Q to V). More important, the focus on the needs of Congress means the LCC pays less attention to non-Western literature, and has no classifications for fiction or poetry.
DDC uses fewer categories and sub-classifications and is consistent across disciplines, while LCC is more highly subdivided with no consistency between disciplines. It’s understandable, therefore, that DDC has proven more useful to libraries catering to a wide range of needs such as public libraries and schools, while LCC is more widely used in libraries focused more on technical areas like colleges, universities, and government.

Turns out that they’re both Eurocentric (or even America-centric) and infused with biases about the relative importance of different topics. For example, let’s look at the top-level division of the DDC. As a decimal system, it has ten categories available at each level. If you were to divide all of human knowledge into ten categories, what would you choose?

Here’s what Dewey did:

000 Computer science, information & general works
100 Philosophy & psychology
200 Religion
300 Social sciences
400 Language
500 Science
600 Technology
700 Arts & recreation
800 Literature
900 History & geography

Or actually, that’s what his system has evolved to now. Obviously Dewey had no concept of “computer science.” In fact, 000 feels more like a “Misc” category. What is CS? The Library of Congress must have thought it didn’t quite fit under 500 (Science) or 600 (Technology). You can browse more here: Dewey Decimal classes.

I’m wondering what a content-based analysis (e.g., clustering) of a large collection of books would create. How would such a hierarchy differ from Dewey’s or Putnam’s? Google, tell us!

The bikini bridge and other social objects

In The Participatory Museum, Nina Simon discusses the “social object,” which seems to be a term coined in 2005 to mean “conversation piece.” (I prefer “conversation piece”, because to me “social object” sounds like an object that is social rather than something that has a social function.) These are items that spark conversation, like dogs or babies or a bizarre hat. They provide easy entry points to human interaction that may be less threatening than directly initiating a conversation.

They may also be curious or controversial sculptures, websites, or memes — things (not necessarily physical) that get crowds of people talking. A recent example I encountered is the bikini bridge meme.

In this case, the meme was deliberately fabricated by 4chan, but once they got the ball rolling, the word quickly spread throughout the internet. Arguably, the social object here was the hashtag: #BikiniBridge2014.

Simon lists four ways that objects can be social: make a personal connection (e.g., an Erector set invites someone to relate a story about *their* first set), impose physically (e.g., a car crash nearby), provoke a response (e.g., graffiti on a wall), or create interactions (e.g., a football). The bikini bridge is definitely provocative (responses range from people who think they’re sexy to people who think the idea is yet another way to objectify women), and for many, also personal (e.g., those who posted a selfie to share their own bikini bridge with the world).

At JPL, we make use of social objects to connect with people outside the lab. Speakers often bring a life-size replica of one of the Mars Science Laboratory’s wheels to let people experience for themselves how big they are and examine the design up close.

I can think of several social objects that inspired me to interact with others just in the past week:

  • a purple origami necklace in the shape of a rocket
  • a USB flash drive shaped like a storm trooper
  • a curiously shaped iPhone case that turned out to be created by a 3D printer

… and the entire poster session at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LPSC), filled with more than 600 posters, was a smorgasbord of social objects, deliberately created to invite interaction!

Perhaps research posters could borrow ideas from Simon’s suggestions about how to make museum/display objects more social:

  1. Ask visitors questions: The goal is for the visitor to personally engage with the exhibit (poster). Perhaps questions like “when did you first see a solar eclipse?” I’ve yet to see an interactive poster that allowed you to post or write in contributions as a visitor, but it might be fun to experiment with!
  2. Provide live interpretation: This is already a built-in feature of poster sessions. When the presenter is present, that is.
  3. Make it provocative: Everyone loves a controversy!
  4. Offer visitors ways to share: Create your own hashtag? Microblogging was rampant at LPSC. More pedestrian: hand out business cards or printouts of the poster.

What’s your favorite social object?

Cataloging on the edge

The first major assignment for my Cataloging class was to round up 20 books and create catalog entries for them. Any books, so long as no more than three were “literature.” After getting stuck for a while on trying to decide what exactly “literature” was, I settled on my books (mostly non-fiction, which apparently was the goal), and dove in.

This was hard.

This was hard because there are no good resources out there (that I know of, or that my class knows of) for exactly how to “catalog a book.” This astonished me, since a system that allows many many people to contribute data is exquisitely vulnerable to any inconsistencies in how those records are created. Surely there are standard rules for what information to include, where to find it, and how to express it?

Kind of.

The currently cataloging ruleset, RDA (Resource Description and Access), sets forth guidelines about what kind of content should go into a bibliographic record, but not how to format it. RDA seeks to implement FRBR (Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records), which is a statement of cataloging philosophy and what user needs are out there. FRBR also contains an entity-relationship diagram that traces out how works, creators, and subjects are (or should be?) connected. FRBR is silent on how to actually create a record, though.

Further, no real system out there actually implements FRBR yet, and even RDA only spells out a partial path to it (parts of RDA are not yet defined, like what kind of relationships between subjects should be captured).

In the meantime, real systems use something called MARC (MAchine-Readable Cataloging) to encode bibliographic records. So that’s what we used to catalog our 20 books. MARC provides some guidelines about formatting (e.g., when to end a field with a period and what field separators to use) but is silent on other aspects like capitalization and bigger questions like where to get the required information from. For example, how do you go about extracting the publication date from a book? How should you express the author’s name?

Here’s where the assignment gets pedagogically interesting, for two reasons.

First, we were operating at the “pleasantly frustrating” level. James Paul Gee listed this as an effectively learning principle in his guide to “Good Video Games and Good Learning.” He suggested that a good learning challenge stays within, but at the edge of, the student’s “regime of competence.” We weren’t just executing a set of well understood rules; instead, there is a lot of ambiguity and nuance, and each question pushed us to dig deeper.

Second, we were working with books in the wild. I gather that most cataloging professors assign their students the same set of books to practice cataloging on. The real answer is known, any questions or gotchas have already been anticipated, and the result is a controlled, sandbox experience.

My professor instead flung the doors wide open and let us each pick our own 20 books, without any sense of what would turn out to be easy or hard to catalog. The result was a chaotic, challenging, and ultimately far more educational experience.

This approach only worked because we had a discussion forum and a professor who monitored it assiduously. Students plastered the forum with questions. “What if the book is a translation?” “What if the pages aren’t numbered?” “What if there are multiple publishers?” Our professor responded quickly to every question, and over time I realized that I was quite possibly learning more from the forum than from my own small set of 20 books. With 88 students, we had something like 1700 books being catalogued (some are duplicates), and the array of issues that came up was dazzling. It was great to have the practice of actually creating my own records (and hunting down resources to allow me to deal with my books’ issues), but it was also fantastic to get to eavesdrop on my classmates’ questions and learn vicariously through them.

In that assignment, we only had to create fields for each book’s title, publisher, publication date, etc. The next assignment had us add the authorized form of the author’s name, and we are just about to revisit our records again to add appropriate subject headings. Each iteration makes our records richer and increases our understanding of the cataloging process. And I have to applaud Prof. Mary Bolin for structuring the process in such an interesting and valuable way.

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