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Open discipline theme based learning

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Learning from students how diverse experiences can culminate in integrated studies, I work to create spaces in which they can discover, define and design an education responsive to their unique …

Learning from students how diverse experiences can culminate in integrated studies, I work to create spaces in which they can discover, define and design an education responsive to their unique intersections of learning and passions. I'll share some examples and ask for your insights.

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  • Whether designing courses or independent studies, open discipline theme-based learning environments can amplify a student’s education. Sometimes that environment is the mentor-mentee relationship; sometimes it’s an Angel course. What I’d like to do today is share my developmental experiences with this approach, ask about your experiences and insights, and converse about our possibilities.
  • My journey began with Ed Planning, and most of what I learned was from my students, so I’ll start there. In degree planning we work with a range of students, some coming in with a great deal of college learning, some with life learning. What interests me is creating space in which students can discover, define and design an education responsive to their unique intersections of learning and passions. So, I put together an Ed Planning framework to facilitate this.
  • It takes place in three modules: For the first 3 to 5 weeks, students design their study. To do this, they begin by defining their goals, an activity that eventually feeds into the rationale essay. They can then browse sample learning activities and discuss how they can adapt them to help meet those goals.
  • These are some of the sample learning activities. Designing Integrated Studies is the one pertinent to today’s discussion.
  • Their selection of goals and activities create a learning contract, and for 8 to 10 weeks, they’ll work with me here. They can visit each other and discuss the process in the Café. During this process, the learning contract sometimes changes.
  • This student came in with 129 credits which we had to reduce to 96. Goals, therefore, were very important. This is a person who had received the equivalent of 28 PLA credits for his work with people dying of AIDS. He himself is HIV positive, and he expects to continue in his job, and wants an MSW. So, his 1 st learning activity was researching MSW programs in his area, and he expected to have to shave more credits, write a degree plan and rationale essay. When he found that because of his experience in the field any BA is acceptable for the program he hopes to enter, he moved to his passion for writing.
  • He had been blogging for his clients, who found his autobiographical stories uplifting, provocative, and informative. He decided he wanted a degree in Creative Non-Fiction, specifically Memoir. So, aside from needed Gen Eds and Ed Planning credits, he devoted all his studies to that end. What we did for the rest of Ed Planning was design Integrated Studies, in which 16 credits of work on one memoir are accomplished through different literary, psychological, and philosophical lenses.
  • Here’s a student who came in needing two Gen Eds, Ed Planning, and 24 additional credits. He loves graphic novels so had studied both writing and visual arts, but had never had an academic opportunity to combine them.
  • Like the previous student, he designed Integrated Studies. He’s crafting a graphic novel about the controversial Gilles de Rais, who found in Joan of Arc’s holy campaign an ideal cover for his serial killing. His Integrated Studies are producing one work, academically parsed as studio art & drama storyboarding, with a cultural study about graphic novels as a way of facilitating editing with an eye for public reception and the social role of his work.
  • Here’s a student who attended ESC in 1973, went to SUNY New Paltz for a while, then moved to Washington state and started his own business. He’s an avid reader in history, culture, ecology – many topics, really. What he wants is any college degree, because he spends half the year in China and wants to teach English during his time there.
  • He’s fulfilling some Gen Eds with PLAs, getting others pertinent to his business experiences.
  • In discussion he realized how to articulate the integration of his disparate studies: “I want to re-visit the topic of China: The Challenge of Achieving Economic Development and Environmental Sustainability that we discussed as a theme for independent study which in many ways represents a culmination of my various interdisciplinary studies over the years.  This subject involves the history, geography, and culture of China, along with understanding global economics and the realities of modern business, global competition for natural resources, and the limits of resource exploitation without regard to environmental consequences.” Since he needs 9 credits, we divided this study in 2 – one focuses on context, the other on resource tensions.
  • Finally, we have a student who entered with no college credit. Her initial goal, like the former student, was any college degree so as to enhance her possibilities for promotion; she teaches traditional Chinese handicrafts at a Waldorf school and a degree would allow them to hire her full time. While discussing how she learned these handicrafts, she revealed extraordinary life learning driven by a concern with women’s issues. She took Assessing Learning, and these are some, but not all, of the PLA credits she may earn. For example, there are the traditional folk arts, and she also runs her own travel to Asia business.
  • Then, she told me that her grandmother was the 1 st woman elected to China’s government and had been very well known there – she’s the subject of books and essays in Mandarin language – and that on her next trip there she wants to make an ancestral journey, seeing the places her grandmother had lived, visiting people who had known her, collecting primary documents and objects from her life. Her trip plans structured the course Concepts & Methods in Feminist Fieldwork, in which, building on her work experience in Taiwan, she created a photojournalistic essay. She dearly loves this woman who inspired all her activist work in Taiwan and wanted to better understand her life and times. We discussed that, aside from Gen Eds and Ed Planning, she is free to structure her degree around this love from many disciplinary approaches that express or touch on issues that concern her or concerned her grandmother, such as literature, arts, history, ecology, and politics in China.
  • These students chose to structure open-discipline theme-based degrees around a person, place, activity, or idea. Cumulatively, they inspired me to consider content in a learning environment that provides this possibility. The course “Water Talks: Rights and Cultures,” is a cultural studies matrix around which students can cluster studies in a full range of disciplines. We begin by exploring and delineating beliefs, values, issues and interests that undergird diverse & conflicting “water stories,” the way people think about, talk about, and act on increasingly critical water source conditions. Then, we examine our own positions in order to locate ourselves in public sphere discourse. Through this course students may be drawn to studies in any number of disciplines, culminating in a theme-based degree plan. For example, I was delighted to see the course listed in an environmental studies degree plan, accompanied by independent studies that delve deeper into the science and politics of water. Similarly, students in any discipline can organize accompanying studies, choosing according their stance in water stories. Right now, an informal version of Water Talks is in POOL (Project for Open Online Learning). POOL is designed as a meeting place where students can cross course boundaries, and theme-based courses that call for multiple disciplinary approaches complement and maximize the effectiveness of such an environment.
  • As an experienced educator but relatively new mentor, the experiences I’ve drawn on in this pursuit are limited. I do welcome questions, but more than that, I’d love to share and build together. Any degree plans or course designs you’d like to share? Any experiences, feelings, thoughts, theories or anything at all you’d like to add?
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