Blog Post

Three Ways to Transform Your Lecture Course: Dean Anne Balsamo’s “TechnoCulture”

Three Ways to Transform Your Lecture Course: Dean Anne Balsamo’s “TechnoCulture”

In this “Progressive Pedagogy Group,” we typically advocate the most engaged, active, student-led forms of learning. However, in the modern academy, most of us are faced with teaching a large lecture course. Sure, one can be creative and engaged in the small discussion sessions . . . but what about when you are on that stage, with a headset and a clicker, power point slides looming behind you, and 200 students sit waiting eagerly for the week’s TED-like timed talk (if they are lucky to have an eloquent prof) or glare stone-faced (facing the stage or the cell phone screen). 

Don't despair! There are good ways, even in the most constrained institutional situation (and even when as a beginning prof you might feel the most powerless) to make a difference, to make learning your objective.

To that end: Here are some terrific tips I picked up recently about how to turn a traditional introductory lecture course into a student-centered learning experience.

These come from Prof Anne Balsamo, a HASTAC cofounder and inaugural Dean of the exciting new School of Arts, Technology, and Emerging Communication (ATEC) at the University of Texas at Dallas, one of the most visionary programs in technology and society anywhere in the country.

Every year, Dean Balsamo offers ATEC's entry level lecture course  “Introduction to TechnoCulture.”  As the name suggests, the course introduces students to “the ways in which technology and culture are intertwined, to consider how technologies shape culture, and how culture transforms technology.”

Here are three tips that can be adapted to any lecture course in any field (and to discussion and seminar classes too):

1- Redesign Your Syllabus as an Invitation to Learning

Repackage the bureaucratic, document-heavy, legalistic, and impersonal form of a syllabus into an appealing booklet. (You don’t need to go crazy—and you can even reuse it later.)

Our typical syllabus is enormous--and deadly.  Online or printed out, these look about as enticing as a “Terms of Service” agreement—designed to dull the senses, alienate the soul, disengage the intellect: in short, designed not to be read.

And they are unavoidable, especially in a big lecture class. To include all the policies our universities now require in this risk-management era, and all of our reading assignments and options, and all of our grading, conduct, and policies, and all of our important universities services (for grievances, academic integrity, accessibility, field trips, and even “campus carry”) means creating a very long, dull document.

Prof Balsamo has designed a simple but entirely attractive, readable, enticing printed booklet for her course.

Each topic has a clear heading, and sometimes an illustration. It’s easy to read and delightful. And it says, "I'm excited about the next weeks we're spending together--and I hope you will be too." 

Isn’t that half the battle when meeting 200--or 600-- students, for 75 minutes, week after week after week?

2- Get 'META'

Let students “in” on why you think it is important for them to learn and how it will be useful to them.

We tend to be very poor at explaining "why" in higher education.Because we went to school for seven years to get a PhD, we are well indoctrinated into why our field is important.Peer review amplifies our professional self-regard.Most students think they are taking a given course or learning about a specific text or tool or method because “my prof told me to.”In education, as in parenting, we know how ineffective “I told you so” is for transformation.

Throughout Prof Balsamo’s TechnoCulture booklet, she pauses to tell students why:Students Learn How To “research, describe, analyze, create, read, apply, synthesize”—and each term comes with an explanation and even suggestions about how these skills will help the student beyond this class, to their other coursework, to jobs, to the rest of their life.

THAT is student-centered learning in a nutshell, including students in the process of understanding how the formal education in school applies to everything informally and outside and beyond school.

3- Move from Punishment to Understanding

Yes, state university and class policies clearly (plagiarism, attendance, etc)… but also (“get meta” again) explain the ways to succeed, not just the punishments for failure.

Prof Balsamo has the university policy on “Academic Honesty” on one page and then, directly across, “How To Protect Your Intellectual Credibility" (with three "Basic Tips" on making notes of where you find things, learning to love citations, and reading Wikipedia critically. Perfect!  Some famous, professional historians have gotten in trouble for not being careful about #1; international students have different norms for quotation and citation; we can all learn from these and listing the punishments without the useful, preventative measures never helps.)

And that is student-centering.Not just punishment but some Basic Tips to help students learn the best ways to achieve intellectual credibility—yet another skill that lasts not just until the final exam but for a lifetime.


Images courtesy of Prof Anne Balsamo (with apologies for photographing from a slightly folded copy of the lovely course booklet.  Online, you can find a 2017 pdf of the course, in an earlier evolving phase.)



Thank you, Cathy, for your comments about the "Introduction to TechnoCulture" course and the shout-out to ATEC at Univ of Texas at Dallas. I will post a link to the new public site for the course when the Fall syllabus is finished. 

Just to fill in some of the details:  This is now a required course for all undergraduates in the School of Art, Technology, and Emerging Communication (ATEC).  The course enrolls 200+ students per semester.  In Fall, 2019, the course will become a "core curriculum" option for students across UTD.  (This is very exciting for me given that UTD is a large STEM university.) In addition to the weekly large-class lecture, students attend a weekly 20-25 person discussion section taught by a 2nd-3rd year doctoral student. Several TechnoCulture teaching-assistants are HASTAC Scholars, btw. Each TA develops their own version of the discussion section syllabus. They have designed many creative activities to connect discussion to lectures.  Many of the TA's use a contract model to determine the grading structure for their sections.

This course is one of 3 foundation courses we will introduce into the ATEC curriculum over the next two years.  Next year we launch:  Introduction to Design & Visual Communication.  The following year:  Introduction to Computational Thinking.  

More info about ATEC


Thanks for this information, Anne, and congratulations on having this course added as an option in the core curriculum.   HASTAC Steering Committee member Danica Savonick noted on twitter that, not only is the form of this course something we can all learn from, but so also is the way you have shaped the content.  She tweets:

"I love these + Balsamo's provocative technology pairings throughout the syllabus (PDF at bottom): the census & the selfie, chess & cos play, the loom & the internet."

I agree.  The unexpected pairings conceptually disrupt the lecture form where each lecture is a closed box.  The unexpected pairings provoke all kinds of "why" questions and interrupt pat answers.  Wonderful course--and perfect for the core curriculum at a STEM school.  I wish Stanford, MIT, Cal Tech, Carnegie Mellon, Georgia Tech, and other great STEM schools would take note!