Blog Post

Project University Makover -- a group response to Now You See It

Last week, a group of graduate students and postdocs at NC State met for a book discussion of Cathy Davidson's Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn. This discussion was part of the Fundamentals in Teaching workshop series at the Graduate School at NC State and facilitated by yours truly. For this discussion, we focused on chapter 3, "Project Classroom Makeover," where Davidson discussed the iPod experiment at Duke, and how it transformed learning across the campus.

In this workshop, we decided to do an experiment of our own. If any of you have been fortunate enough to read Now You See It or attend one of Cathy Davidson's talks, she'll tell you how we are doing a great job of training students for the 20th century. That is, for an industrial society where work is highly task-oriented, demanding highly focused, undivided attention. Students are not being trained for the highly interconnected and networked world in which we currently live and work that demands attention in many directions all at once. I have heard Davidson give the example of the school bell as the symbol of this 20th century classroom. The school operates by the bell in the same way factories operate by the bell. In our experiment, we decided to brainstorm a list of other "symbols" of the 20th century university classroom, and imagine how we could completely transform these symbols for our classroom. Here's what we came up with.

The 20th Century Symbols:

  • Scantron/multiple choice tests
  • Memorization
  • Flashcards
  • ABCD grading scale
  • Lecture halls with a blackboard or powerpoint at the focus
  • Teacher centered classrooms
  • Row seating
  • Science fair poster presentations
  • Handwriting and note-taking
  • Standardization
  • Syllabai and lectures that are divided by disctinct topics
  • A discreet sense of time (e.g. meeting MWF 9-10am, a year being divided into semesters, and courses into hours of credit)
  • Worksheets

[Disclaimer: I do not intend to give the impression that I, or any of the participants in this workshop, think that these "symbols" are bad and should be thrown out of the classroom. Handwriting is certainly a great skill that everyone should practice! The point of this exercise was to reimagine the university for the 21st century--Its not a question of what artifacts we include and exclude in our university, its a question of how they are used.]

After we created a master list of our 20th century symbols, we broke into small groups to pick one of these symbols, and re-create it for a 21st centruy classroom. Some groups focused on one symbol, others picked a group of related symbols. Here's what we created:

  • Course-flipping: A teacher-centered lecture hall became a collaborative laboratory where students listened to lectures or read the textbook before class, and attended class to collaborate on problems with the instructors assistance
  • Worksheets were re-designed to function more as guides rather than fill-in-the-blank, showing relevance of learning with big picture questions. (Yes! They can still be printed on paper!)
  • Courses were re-designed to have a looser sense of time. This involved creating hybrid courses (both online and in-person meetings). One or the other may be optional, or students can facilitate informal meet-ups.
  • Other ideas: using technology to generate problems and provide feedback; collaborative groups; group projects and group presentations

The blog format is a very difficult medium to recreate this dynamic discussion we had in this workshop. If any of the participants read this and see I left something out, please add a comment! Here are some other issues we discussed that we, as TAs and as future faculty, could take baby steps towards changing: evaluation and grading mechanisms, testing mechanisms, physical classroom layout, student-centered learning, diversity in the classroom, and group collaboration.

Now I'll end with a question I recently learned at a workshop on collaboration (at Duke, led by Fiona Barnett and Cathy Davidson):

What are we missing?




"Build something" might be a phrase to add alongside course-flipping and collaboration. As you probably know, it's an idea that's been put into practice by a lot of people. If I recall, most recently John Seely Brown talked about it in his keynote at DML2012.

I tend to interpret the idea loosely; that is, building doesn't have to mean build something digital or a piece of computer hardware. For example, though this might be crazy a idea, I plan to have my next year's freshman comp class build their own syllabus and then teach it to each other. Of course, I'll give them plenty of guidance and encouragement, as well as some guidelines, but they'll have to figure out what they need to know and write about their reasoning. I'm interested in what they'll come up with and what they'll write.

I can only dream of a discussion like the one you had among my colleagues at my school. (But it won't stop me from trying the idea next semester!)


I also think the 21st century university needs to be designed to facilitate collaboration with remote participants in real time. We have the technology, and the world can be connected into classrooms, workgroups, workshops, conferences, symposia and the like. Something as simple as bringing in visiting lecturers via videoconference, to enrich a traditional lecture-style course, and as intricate as mixing present and remote participants in a project-based seminar involving workgroups crossing campuses and beyond. Students will be entering a working world where web conferencing is an everyday part of the work process and a natural way to connect with others personally, though not physically.


I was already in love with this great post about your class and this exercise and then I came to the final line and thought, "nothing I could say would better exemplify Now You See It's message than a post that ends with the tag line/question, "What am i missing."    AND two people have responded with fabulous comments.


Build something:    Just this week, I suggested that a brilliant artist-activist friend of mine, Lisa Lesniak, build a Word Press website in advance of a show she has this week (I've blogged about this incredible exhibit here:   Lisa had never done a website before and I think was fearful.  Well, within a few hours, she had a gorgeous site and realized she wasn't afraid, she was really enjoying it.  Here it is:        Nothing I could have said would have been as powerful as her building it herself, and that is true for all of us, and your students will love it, building their own site.   You'll have to talk about all the digital literacies together--privacy, security, anonymity, access, IP, etc etc.


Syncrhonous collaboration:  by blogging about the class, you are promoting it---and even more amazing if the students were to create a Google Doc and invite others to participate or something else where their partners were another class, somewhere else. 


And then all the things you say:  course flipping in every way.   There's always something missing, that's the nature of life, but how exciting to be trying to find that "always something" together.   Thanks so much for this. 


Thanks everyone for your great comments. And I'm so glad you think we did your book justice Cathy! Your book has definitely made an impact here. I actually ran into one of the participants from this workshop and in a discussion about a teaching portfolio peer review she said, "I was being attention blind!"

In response to building something: one of my HASTAC mentors, David Rieder, has been doing a lot of work in the Arduino and physical computing for learning, and using depth data from the Kinect for writing. I think building something, be it an electronic device to collect data, or a syllabus, or a website, is a fascinating approach to learn how knowledge and information changes based on what senses are engaged, and what format it is presented in. I would love to hear how your syllabus turns out next semester! I bet your students will actually set higher expectations for themselves.



I definitely will write about the process and ask for suggestions here at HASTAC next year. Since I'm also planning to have my students create their own blogs, as well as contribute to a class blog, there should be plenty of material show, discuss, and think about.