Today’s professionals can expect to teleconference into a meeting from halfway across the globe, working across time zones and borders to craft meaningful solutions to interdisciplinary problems. In these environments, technology has become the key mediating tool for productive cross-cultural collaboration.
It was with these issues in mind that Anna Milkowski, 2015-2016 Tang Fellow and Instructor in Biology, jumped at the chance to spearhead the creation of an interdisciplinary, intra-scholastic course with six other teachers from the Eight Schools Association (ESA). “How do we teach collaboration as a fundamental skill that students need to have in order to be functioning citizens and learners in a digital world?” asks Milkowski. “We weren’t sure, as schools, that we knew how to teach these skills well.” The course, entitled “Water and Humanity”, launched in the spring of 2015 and brought together 16 students from eight participating schools to work collaboratively on interest-driven projects investigating the role of water resources in human development.
Informed by a larger, national conversation on how best to prepare students for an increasingly globalized world, the goals of the “Water and Humanity” course were many. Meeting for the first time in person in January 2014, the eight teachers agreed that the group’s overarching project was to design a yearlong course on water for 2015-2016, with a pilot in spring 2015. The course itself, they hoped, would:
For ESA, and the eight deans supporting the pilot course, the goals were a little broader:
For Milkowski, as for other teachers, the goals were more specific:
|Brian Schroyer||St. Paul’s||Art|
|Sarah Warren||Northfield Mount Herman||Religion and Philosophy|
The folllowing individuals have also provided key support throughout the project:
Scheduling. During the semester, the students and teachers held face-to-face discussions, participated in seminars by teleconference, and worked online in intra-school teams. An early challenge was finding a time for everyone to meeting, said Milkowski, especially since the eight schools ran on different academic and athletic schedules. All 16 students held “sync meetings” every other Wednesday from 8:00 p.m. to 8:50 p.m., which is when formal lesson material was covered, led by a different teacher each time.
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Ongoing assessment. Students were asked to write written reflections on readings, group projects, discussions, and their own experiences in the course. Each of the teachers was responsible for “sponsoring” and grading one assignment. Especially challenging towards the end of the term was how to assess collaborative projects. How do you “grade” interest-based learning in a way that is mindful of different learning styles, yet fair to members who had done more work than others? For example, Milkowski recalls “moments where we were grading papers and it seemed clear that students hadn’t read each others papers. That made things much more difficult.”
Final projects. The course culminated in final, student-centered projects broken down into teams. Each group chose one of four scripted projects on water and human development, ranging from researching water distribution infrastructure in Akha, Ghana, to designing a model city on Mars. Students were asked to investigate one of these real-world problems with some of the analytic frameworks studied throughout the course of the term, and, finally, to propose a feasible solution.
Again, the groups ran into difficulty scheduling students running on various school schedules. “One group could only find time to meet at 10:30 on a Friday night,” says Milkowski. “They couldn’t meet at any reasonable time.” The quality of the collaborations often deteriorated as a result. Students sometimes “took on a divide and conquer strategy,” which, Milkowski, notes, defeats the purpose of collaborating to find a solution.
Milkowski also noted the challenge of balancing “a project carried by student interested versus [teachers] having a deep sense of what students need to know about water.” Ultimately, though, the projects were “very imaginative.”
Milkowski and the other teachers worked behind-the-scenes with Pod Client, a consulting firm that “really helped to corral the project.” Pod introduced a host of tools with which they experimented throughout the course, including:
Testing the technology required a little bit of trial and error, says Milkowski. Once, for example, the teachers realized that the students had written and posted their reflections to the blog but had not included their names. “It was the things you don’t think of,” Milkowski says. “I had to tailor my own vision for the project knowing the extent of this online medium.” Nevertheless, using these tools in a classroom has forced her to think more deeply about how to best teach students to use them. “We might ask students to make a video, for example. But how do you teach that? What tools are out there to teach video-making?”