Blog Post

Midterm Exam as Open Innovation Challenge?

Next Wednesday, my students in "This Is Your Brain on the Internet" and "21st Century Literacies" will be taking the midterm exam of their lives.   They've never done anything like this before.  I haven't.  I've never heard of anyone else trying it.  They will have a full day to as a class shape an essay question and answer in which every student participates, and, by 11:59 pm have it there on the Google Doc, have it posted on our class blog, and also have it posted on this site for all the world to see.   Whew.  This is a midterm exam posted as what the Mozilla open web folks would all an "Open Innovation Challenge."  Pretty formidable.   And here's the remarkable part:  they insist they are up for the challenge.


In each class, the general topic of the midterm amounts to summarizing, synthesizing, analyzing, defining, and addressing what the students, collectively, see as having emerged this term as the key point so far, all substantiated with examples and references from what we have read, heard, watched, seen, and experienced.   In each case, the Teaching Apprentice (TAP,  a brilliant Duke phenomenon where a graduate student in the field observes and participates lightly in a class by a proven teacher to learn new pedagogies and methods) will be on hand if everything is falling into chaos and the TAP will be the assessor who validates that everyone has participated in the process.   I, on the other hand, will be in California, participating in our annual Digital Media and Learning Conference on "Designing Learning Futures" and, at some point, will be giving a paper on the Learning Futures these amazing students are designing together.


Sound scary and irresponsible?   It certainly would be were it not for the fact that we are half-way through a class where two students, each week, design the class.  The next week, two other students are up and take on the role of teacher.  They do so with a sure hand, confidence, imagination, rigor, and excitement that I've never witnessed before.  The two classes are back to back, Mondays and Wednesdays, and they are very different in feel, one more scientific and urgent, the other so deep and honest that it leaves me speechless some days.  ("Where did you people come from?" I asked on Monday, reduced to awe after we went around the room and each told about an essay they had written entirely from a perspective different from their own, each essay more profound and introspective and deep than the last--a prisoner, a newborn infant, someone with high-functiong autism, someone learning English upon arriving in the US: one even wrote his essay from the pov of a pyromaniac--in verse, as a long poem).  This assignment was given by the student leaders conducting the mirror neurons sequence in the wake of Vittorio Gallese's visit and lectures:  they were showing (not telling but showing) how we move from the mirror neurons in a single cell, to a theory of empathy, to authorship--the previous class, they set up a surrealist inclass experiment in surprise and making sense of nonsense.   The last step in the process is readership, how we read each other's writings.  From identification of one cell to a theory to the communication cycle and to art:  talk about Twenty-First Century Literacy!   And what was the other class ("Your Brain on the Internet") doing on Monday?   Those student leaders had arranged all the logistics for a field trip, featuring the incomparable Professor Michael Platt, neuroscientist, to take us on a tour of the brain in Duke's Immersive Virtual Environment (the DIVE, a virtual reality environment) where the students would actually react to a fear- and excitement-inducing experiment and then tour a VR model of the brain where Prof Platt showed them what parts would be most implicated in those emotional reactions.  He also traced out parts of the brain, and the connections between them, as related to memory, and how those things all relate, we believe, to mirror neurons, another track back to Gallese's brilliant lecture.  (He also passed on rather frightening information about how susceptible the hippocampus is to such things as dehydration---as happens during intoxication.) 


For these  students, self-organizing, leadership, taking charge, and working together to collaborate on a midterm exam should be a piece of cake. (NB:  they know it won't be; collaboration is always difficult but they have the right preparation to make it work.  I know they do.  More importantly, they know they do.)


And there is another fail safe.   I've told them that I'm setting the bar low, because this is the hardest thing I've ever asked students to do.  That they are willing to give it a try is the success story of these classes. Keep in mind, they have been rewarded life long for individual achievement.  These are overachieving, overcommitted students and they are accepting a challenge to do something none of us has ever done before--and they will publish their results as a class endeavor.  


"The key to the treasure IS the treasure," is an old adage from Buddhist training, or any training.  They have the key.  To me, that is what makes them winners.


On the other hand, self-confidence is not the only outcome required by this challenge.  They have to publish the result.  It's an open source class!  So the challenge itself is still materially, publicly there.


We've talked about how, in an Open Innovation Challenge, there is typically a brilliant, experienced leader to help shape the group.  At Mozilla, that would be Gunner, awesome Gunner, who, I swear, could organize and inspire any group to succeed.  Will a Gunner emerge naturally from a group?  It could happen.    They were shocked when I said, if they wanted, if they felt one student wrote far better under pressure than anyone else, and if they all wanted to pay that person to write the perfect exam question for them, as long as they each contributed funding to his or her writing, they could call that the form of collaboration they chose.  It's the capitalist form.  Find an expert, pay an expert.  Kicker:  they have to explain, later, the form of collaboration they chose. And why.  Their shock at my suggestion of a hired-gun writing their exam for them made it clear they are not going to take this route, but I wanted them to know, graphically, that there are many routes to success on this challenge and, if they want, they can take the 20th century one of hired, delegated expertise. (I don't know about you, but I'm betting they won't.)


I am not afraid for them.  I am very happy for what they are willing to learn about themselves and about collaboration under pressure, from accepting an innovation challenge, as a method.  These are not required classes.  They knew in advance what they were getting into.  They signed contracts saying what they would do, they volunteered for this challenge.

Who wouldn't want to hire a student who was willing to take such a challenge?   Who wouldn't want to have a peer or a colleague who, you knew, had accepted such a challenge?  If parents are out there, you should be smiling today.  Your child hasn't been a "child" for some years now but, whatever else this is, it is certainly a test of mettle, responsibility, and self-confidence that few of us have the opportunity to accept.  These students have accepted the mission impossible, and are making it possible.  If you are an administrator and you've been worried about what in the world has been going on in Cathy Davidson's class this  time . . . breathe more easily.


Life lessons are happening in this peer-organized, crowdsourced, collaborative student-led semester.  Not because am teaching them, but because they are.  


Here is what our friends at Mozilla define as an Open Innovation Challenge, it's the way the World Wide Web was created, it is the way that your Mozilla browser was created, and it is a new way of thinking, a new management style, and just about a way of life.

 Mozilla's Open Innovation Challenge
Open Innovation Challenges gather the best and the brightest to identify promising ideas and move them from concept to prototype to implementation. It is a formal framework designed and used by Mozilla to tackle problem sets whose solution is unknown. While subject to variation, the basic structure consists of four phases:

Qualification. Participants are chosen from among the community of practitioners based upon the degree to which their work has the potential to produce tangible impact, defined as measurable progress towards the organizing challenge statement.

Peer-based learning and exchange. The participants are brought together to share their ideas within a structured workshop. The format is designed to purposefully do away with conference norms such as PowerPoint presentations and a division between speaker and audience. Participants are guided to keep an open mind and a focus on ideas that can be implemented easily and immediately, with the goal of establishing short-term feedback loops.

Iterative development and application.
Immediately following (and often during) the workshop, participants are asked to form self-selected groups and begin work on new tools, systems, models, and other projects that tackle the challenge statement. Resources are committed to projects that begin to show promise. Projects are awarded increasingly larger degrees of support through iterative funding rounds. Continued support is contingent upon results. Projects that stall or do not produce the desired outcomes are removed from the innovation framework. Participants assigned to those projects are encouraged to join forces with those initiatives still underway.

Narrowing and launch. Project iteration and funding rounds continue (at no set schedule; the goal is to allow the natural path of the project to guide the process) until there are a handful of projects with demonstrable results and progress towards solving the challenge statement. These projects are formalized as initiatives of the partner organizations and work begins to scale the projects impact across the target sector.

The core of an Open Innovation Challenge is a clear definition of the problem statement. Ideally, no additional metrics should be required to measure success; success should be evident by the challenge having been solved.

The model is the central tool Mozilla uses to innovate new technology. It has a proven record of delivering on the potential of known and unknown possibilities. Open Innovation Challenges have informed user interface designs for Firefox Weave; created data visualizations for bug tracking and testing; and laid the groundwork for integrating contact management into Firefox. Additionally, Mozilla is using an Open Innovation Challenge in partnership with the Knight Foundation to drive the development of new technology to shape the future of digital journalism.


Open Innovation Challenges capture the benefits of open-ended conversation - the generativity that comes from the freedom to propose radical ideas, crowdsourced insight, and accidental encounter - while driving to tangible progress by applying a strict definition of success; the elimination and surmounting of clearly defined challenge statements.


1 comment

From Facebook friends who read the post above, I learned that the psychoanalytic theorist and Classics professor Norman O. Brown used to do things like this in the 1970s in a more open-ended way----for example, he came into a class of 200 and gave them a final exam which was to write the one question together, all 200, with no structure and no warning.  


In an era of assessments and quantitative learning measures, it is far harder to experiment with teaching and learning in ways that are far more like everyday work life and decision making than is any item-response test!   The pendulum, I am sure, will swing again, though, and we'll be out of this multiple-choice mentality soon.   The world of digital interactivity requires new forms of thinking and we will get there eventually . . .


Anyone else have stories of teachers, past or present, who are trying new forms of assessment?


For those interested, here's a list of Brown's books, taken from the Wikipedia entry, of course.  


  • 1947. Hermes the Thief: The Evolution of a Myth. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
  • 1953. Hesiod, Theogony. Translated and with an introduction by Norman O. Brown. Indianapolis : Bobbs-Merrill.
  • 1959. Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytical Meaning of History. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press.
  • 1966. Love's Body. New York: Random House.
  • 1973. Closing Time. New York: Random House.
  • 1991. Apocalypse and/or Metamorphosis. Berkeley: University of California Press.