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:
- 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?
- 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.
- 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?