Blog Post

Just Look What Happens When Students Run the Show!

It never fails.  Whenever I start to tell people that I now run all my classes on a collaborative and peer-led (student-led) model, they are positive that the students are getting away with murder . . . or that I am!   The students are taking the class because it is an easy A and the prof is off to the south of France for the semester.   Well, not exactly.


I'm teaching two classes on this model this semester, "This Is Your Brain on the Internet" and "21st Century Literacies."   In the former class (which I've taught twice before), I have presented students with a full, coherent, carefully worked out syllabus for the entire semester.  Each week two of them lead the class.  They read the work I've assigned and make a decision to accept it as the class assignment, to augment it, or to reject it and propose something else that is equally defensible, equally rigorous.   If they do the latter (lots more work, of course), they have to set us the assignments, prepare two classes that are not simply boring student reports (no talking heads allowed), and then they read (or view) each student assignment (blog, vlog, or something else) and judge it as either Satisfactory (meets the terms of the student's contract satisfactorily) or they give the student a chance to revise and resubmit. They are obligated to work with the student to see if they can make the work satisfactory.  If that doesn't happen, then they report an Unsatisfactory grade on that assignment.  The next class, two other students are in charged.


Okay, first up in "This Is Your Brain on the Internet" my syllabus called for a unit on "How We Measure," on assessment methods.   The students politely declined and said they would like to propose "Cyberbullying" since they argued this was of great relevance to students but had never been discussed in an intellectually rigorous way in any of their classes.   I agreed and they devoted the first class to an escalating discussion of all parties in cyberbullying, screening a rant by an eleven-year old girl that made her instantly famous (a discussion of minors), a tv news story of the tragic suicide of Tyler Clementi at Rutgers that reduced the complexity of the whole situation, including homophobia, to "the Internet is bad," and then bringing the whole topic closer to home by turning to the recent notorious scandal at Duke where a female student wrote a parody of a sociology thesis that included rating (and sometimes being quite derisive about) college men she had sex with.  As with the readings they assigned, the students insisted on moving far beyond technodeterminism to analyze how technologies amplify social values and social relationships.   It was a brillaint conversation, extremely challenging intellectually--and that was the beginning.   For their second class, they had arranged for a national expert on cyberbullying, Rebecca Newton, Chief Community and Safety Officer at MindCandy, to come to the class to lecture from her experience (beginning at AOL when she had to go into the "dungeon" where AOL's dark contents were stored to help the FBI understand the students responsible for the shootings at Columbine High School in 1999).  It was a spellbinding class, where the students came to understand, in a new way and on a new level, that all content on line is owned by someone else, including sexting photographs and anything included in those incredibly long agreements in tiny type that we all sign without reading.   Not a bad way to begin a class. 


Next is a "set" topic because we await the visit of Vittorio Gallese, one of the scientists in the famous Parma, Italy, lab where mirror neurons were first identified.  Two students will set us readings and lead the follow-up discussion after Professor Gallese's two lectures here. 


Meanwhile, in "Twenty-First Century Literacies," which is a gateway class for English majors but includes other student who just like taking literature classes, the class has already written a beautiful "Reader's Guide to Emma Donoghue's Room," an incredible novel about the "affordances" of our world from which we construct the realities we can.  I won't give away any more from this brilliant novel.   Their Reader's Guide includes a superb online email interview with the author, who has generously responded.   Much of the writing was done collaboratively, in two class periods.   It is ready for prime time already (or close) but it is so good the students are thinking to make it a semester-long class project and center all other conversations back on the Reader's Guide as our central, collaborative "paradigm" for all we do.   For example, this week, the topic is "authorship" and "publishing" as we are awaiting a visit from the ever-provocative and incredibly smart Professor Kathleen Fitzpatrick of Pomono College who will be talking on this topic.  The class is asking, "so who is the 'author' of our Reader's Guide?"   Individual sections were co-written by teams of students.   Other students have come in to edit and work on visuals and formatting.   Two students have been delegated as the primary editors.  Everyone pitched in on the questions for Emma Donoghue.   What is collaborative authorship?  Do you ascribe authorship to an entire class? Do you name the members?  These are all 21st Century Literacies.  


And the peer leaders for this week have given us a provocative set of readings to guide and inspire our thinking.  I'll tip those in here.   But I want to go back to my opening remark:  "Whenever I start to tell people that I now run all my classes on a collaborative and peer-led (student-led) model, they are positive that the students are getting away with murder . . . or that I am!"   I have given you the evidence above and more will come below.   You  decide . . . 


Group 2:   Literacies:  Authorship, publishing, reading, writing


1. NYT: Summary of SQ experiment; crowdsourcing of PR of academic journals
NYTimes article on Peer Reviewing (good 1st read?): 
    Media Commons:

**Shakespeare Quarterly Peer-Review: 

    Media Commons (Kathleen Fitzpatrick)
    The New Everyday: Academic journals via peer review crowdsourcing online 

2. Crowdsourcing art
Crowd-sourcing art (LoC): 
3. Crowdsourcing non-text (here: mathematical proof)
Blogs and Wikis used to evaluate a claimed proof in just a week: 
4. Legality: rights, authorship, copyright, etc.
Video Book (with video of radio talk): 

Details of contract for Video Book published by MIT: 

5. Digital transformation of the disciplines (instead of the disciplines using digital to further the old way of doing things).
Be Online or Be Irrelevant (by “Dave”):

Further Reading:

Read the following blog post and then post a response to all that we have discussed today, or what you have read here or found on your own as relates to the topic.

Googling Peer Review (“Mike”):

How Google works: (optional supplement; link within article too)

(“as a giant peer reviewer”)

Also: Find out something about Kathleen Fitzgerald that you did not already know.

Also interesting:
UVA Director of Digital Research at UVA Library
Monopolies of Invention (speech by Bethanie Nowviskie at 2009 Modern Language Association (MLA) convention):





I actually did this once before - in a graduate course on "foundations of education" which led to a series of extremely complex negotiations among a group of otherwise pretty smart and straightforward students. They ended up giving each other, as I remember it - and it was over 20 years ago - an A largely because they couldn't think of anything else.

This time, however, I'm working with high school kids using e-portfolios - electronic libraries of "good stuff" they choose to use to make themselves look smart, capable, job and career ready, and, as one pointed out "If I'd been doing this from freshman year I'd have all those colleges bidding against each other." John Hattie - in his overblown but quite smart Visible Learning, ranks "self-grading" or self assessment as the most productive student skill for long term educational gains. And, frankly, it's obvious once you've done it with a few rounds of almost any students.

One of the "tricks," however, is to use Arnold Packer's Verified Resume skills (, or some other soft skills index, as a framework for every portfolio. That allows comparability - over time and across kids and grades - as well as gives some semblance of goals. When you posit things like "responsibility," "teamwork," and "creativity," you end up with some worthy aspirations and some intriguing examples of what kids think those terms best reflect. That is, in itself, a startling source of productive dialog - "where should I put this dance concert I directed," or "what category best describes these meals we served at a shelter," or "what does it mean that I designed a car with a bunch of other guys," are infinitely more productive discussions than how long was the 7 years war!

One of the other tricks is to encourage collaboration. With soft skills like those Packer uses it's very hard to stress competition: how can one member take all the credit for teamwork, for one obvious example. That also means that ambitious or self-aggrandizing students can't get away with giving themselves all high scores on all criteria, and leaving it at that. They've not only got to justify their portfolio examples, but they've also got to frame some sense of priorities: is it better to listen or to apply new knowledge, to be creative or to negotiate joint conclusions, to work across cultures or to take responsibility. There are NO EASY ANSWERS, and the easier they are phrased the less credible their application.

This technique is so much better than test prep that it will be a pleasure to do a strategic evaluation comparing a testing method invented in 1911 for the US Army (multiple choice questions) with a 21st century online multimedia assessment. ha!


Thank you for the wonderful insights you give us via your own teaching.  I am interested, and will most likely test some of these ideas in a course I teach in the fall.

However, one question I have is how do you engage those 2 students on weeks where they are not leading the session?  In my experience, I have observed great results (in terms of collaboration, preparation and active engagement) when students have to lead or co-lead a session, but that places an emphasis (for them) on just one small part of the semester.