Blog Post

"Peer Apprenticeship": A New Teaching Model for a Digital Age

Although I will be on sabbatical this year, I am involved in so many exciting projects that I am trying to find a way to include students.  I've been thinking more and more about how to put my theories of the importance of teaching cross-disciplinary, peer-led models of learning into the practice of my upcoming year.  I spent several weeks mulling this and am now in the process of securing approval but, so far, the response has been enthusiastic to what I will call "peer apprenticeship."   That is, I am going to offer five to seven students, undergraduate and graduate and from all disciplines, a chance to work with me in a collaborative independent study during my sabbatical.  I will invite them to be involved with my various projects, to create parallel and contributing projects of their own to these major international and institutional ones. Each project the students create will have a project leader, and each project will generate a syllabus of readings.  Each student will have a chance to manage one project during the term.  We will put the intellectual content of the various programs together with management theory and practice (including management of virtual and distributed organizations) to make overt connections, to show how a general education can be the most practical and visionary possible preparation for future non-academic employment.  This is NOT a class for future academics.  I'm saying that, to do better business, to be a better lawyer or doctor or accountant or executive, you need not only to know a lot about the complex world in which we live but you need to know how to take those generalist lessons and apply them to skillful, collaborative, technology-assisted working groups that no how to move from an idea to successful implementation.  No one teaches that skill or shows how you move from liberal arts training into the world of careers and professions.


Let me back up a bit and give a rationale and then some practical examples.  Going way a decade or more, I've been saying that humanistic training in historical analysis, close reading of texts, cultural theory, and understanding of context are invaluable tools in the twenty-first century workplace--and ones increasingly rare, too.   I've been saying that the training one receives in both qualitative and quantitative social sciences--everything from ethnographic observation to statistical analysis--is equally invaluable.  And, of course, scientific training is also key, in ways ranging from in-depth master of content to such practical matters as lab management.  Back in 1999, when we created the John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute, we even pitched an idea of a "humanities lab" that translated humanistic ideas into collaborative, interactive practice.  And HASTAC, of course, is founded on the idea that the challenges of the Information Age require all of us working together collaboratively.  The three pillars of HASTAC are "new media/critical thinking/participatory learning."   This peer apprentice, collaborative independent study finally puts those pillars together as the foundation of a new experiment in learning.   


But how do we do this?   Collaboration is neither easy to accomplish nor self-evident.   We tell preschoolers to "play well together" and then, the moment they enter the big world of kindergarten and beyond, we reward them almost exclusively for their individual accomplishment, constantly ranking and rating them in comparison to their peers.   In the workplace, they then have to figure out how to "play well together" and they rarely have any clue at all how to take those twelve years of formal education and apply them to everyday workplace situations.    Interestingly, this is even true of those who pursue popular majors such as economics which seem as if they would have relevance to the workplace but rarely do in practical terms.


One thing we've been asked to do at HASTAC is think about developing a pre-professional MA for Duke University students that takes seriously all the ways that humanistic forms of learning can contribute to the confusing, bewildering, constantly changing ways of working with, through, and in the field of technology.   So my idea next year, during my "sabbatical" (which promises to be the busiest year of my life), is to have five or seven carefully selected students--students who can convince me that they are not only smart and determined but willing to both take risks and succeed together--to find ways, through peer-led meetings under my guidance, and with a self-generating series of resources (books, lectures, articles, websites, videos, webinars)--to transform all they have learned as K-20 students into a lesson plan for their future in the non-academic workplace.


Here's what's on my docket for the next few months and you will get a better idea of how this could be a once-in-a-lifetime learning opportunity for the right group of students as well as a wonderful prototype for a pre-professional MA (we're currently thinking of it as the MA in Knowledge and Networks--a name that changes monthly if not weekly!).  


(1) Early in September, HASTAC will be hosting a one-day invitational workshop on Peer-to-Peer Pedagogies, featuring three speakers (one in media studies, feminist theory, and actual technology/device design;  one in engineering; one now in new teaching and technology methods and coming from a medical background) and ten student "mentors" who have been contributing ideas for the workshop over the summer.   The morning will be an interactive session by the three "speakers" and the afternoon a student-led UnConference.  


(2)  HASTAC is having its annual Steering Committee meeting in the Research Triangle also in September, an always lively and inspiring occasion where fifteen or so people think the future together.


(3)  Together with UNC's Department of Communication Studies and ISIS and FHI, HASTAC will host a regional THATCamp RTP--another UnConference, this one on the intersections of the humanities and technology.


(4)  I and HASTAC have been asked to partner in the Mozilla Foundation's first annual Drumbeat Festival, to be held in Barcelona, November 3-5, on the topic of Learning, Freedom, and the Open Web.


(5)  We are spearheading, through a series of forums, the process of approving a new pre-professional in MA in something like Knowledge and Networks.


(6)  HASTAC will be holding HASTAC Humpdays on the third Wednesday of each month, for visionaries using social technologies and social media for research and teaching, where a happy hour combines with an information exchange and a practical hands-on participatory session with someone who is doing a crackerjack job using Twitter or Crowdsourced Grading (moi) or BarCamps or Pecha Kucha's or other new forms to accomplish something important for their organization---and succeeding.

(7)  We will be mounting our fourth HASTAC/MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning Competition.


Etcetera.   Each of these requires utmost management skills, in-depth knowledge applied to practical implementation.  The scholarship undergirding just about all of these--in everything from attentional studies in neuroscience to workplace psychology to theories of collaborative and collective action--is extensive.   So why not make it a course?  Why not make it a collaborative, peer-guided, apprentice model Independent Study?   Since I'm doing this on my sabbatical, the cynical folks out there can't say, "Ah, that Davidson is getting out of work yet again!"   (Anyone who has guided such a project knows that is ridiculous but cynicism is rarely dispelled by logic or knowledge.)   More to the point, this trial run might then be institutionalized, both in the MA and perhaps in practicums in other departments that have not yet figured out how what they do and how they do it is not only practical but helps us think through, in the deepest intellectual way, the challenges of knowing, learning, and working together in the 21st Century.


So, that's the bright idea.   I'm happy for comments.  And, if you happen to be a Duke student inspired by this blog, willing to work hard and think deep and shape the impossible into an Epic Win, then send me an email.  Do I ever have an exciting learning experience on the docket for you!



1 comment

I have been teaching at the Career Center High School in Winston-Salem for the past 3 years. Much of what you have posted and spoken about resonates with me and my sense that even at the best schools we are not doing the best job we can do, with all resources available, of educating our students. I think we are doing the best job we *know how* to do at my high school. Over the 30+ year existence of the Career Center, I believe many graduates have attended Duke. I'm just writing to tell you now that if you should have a tie and are trying to decide between two competing students to work on this with you, if one had attended the Career Center in Winston-Salem Forsyth County Schools and the other one not, I would STRONGLY recommend choosing the Career Center student. Since I've been at the school only 3 years, the students I could recommend to you aren't quite at the stage you need them to be, I fear. Still, these are all very strong students, and the atmosphere at Career Center would have helped them become the innovative, investigative collaborators you seek.

Here is a link to our website. Please don't judge us too harshly as the district "turned on" the new website this week, so not all teacher pages et cetera are complete just yet, it being summer break. However, most of the general information is in place. It will give you an idea of what a special place the Career Center is. Oh yes, you are invited to stop by and visit anytime your schedule might permit. We love visitors!

Best wishes with all your projects!

Kay Endriss