What if (we fail)?

I’m not sure who first introduced the What If? site in one of our cMOOC meetings, but this link takes you to the following user- generated question on the site:  What if everyone actually had only one soul mate, a random person somewhere in the world?

Because I have (awesome) young adult children, ages 20, 21 and 25, I know that this question is one that would likely intrigue them (maybe because they would be skeptical, which is a good starting point for most critical thinking, anyway).  But this question addresses the myth that some people live by, one that our students have heard before, and one that likely, they would find interesting enough to read a speculative argument about.

The What if? posts make arguments by first following the logic of many of the embedded assumptions underlying the question.  This is a good practice for our students to see.  If we are asking about soul mates, for example, aren’t we to presuppose that the single soul mate for each of us will be alive at the same time in which we are alive, for example, or speak the same language we speak, or fall within our same age range? If we do not make these assumptions, then doesn’t that complicate the answer to the question even more, and what are those added complications?

In our cMOOC meeting we asked, what if students posed their own What if? questions and followed the trail of assumptions embedded in the questions?   And I am asking, what if I posed a What if? question in my blog?  What if my question were:  What if our Digital Pilot Summer Univ 200 cMOOC class fails?

First, we have to examine our assumptions about what we mean by  “fail?”   How do classes “fail” anyway?  We can measure failure of our students by using assessments and end of year grades.  So, for example, we could compare the percentages of students who fail the summer cMOOC sections with the percentages who failed previous summer sections, and decide that this difference in failure rate is one measure of our success or failure.

We could get out our “boxes” document (that document we’ve worked tirelessly on to align our course goals with student learning outcomes), and examine student produced artifacts — their blogs, their “papers,” — for evidence that they have demonstrated the learning outcomes that guide the course.  The problem with this approach, as we’ve found, is that measuring “critical thinking” is difficult, at best, and may be inconsistently demonstrated by our  students.  (Ours is a spiral curriculum, after all).

One of our learning outcomes is that students will  “become more proficient in analyzing, understanding and participating in argumentation.”  I believe the What If? exercise could contribute to student proficiency in argumentation, but can I measure this?  What about those “out there” What if questions that our students will surely pose, questions about zombies or selfies or Justin Bieber or obesity in America?  What if these questions lead students to outrageous, unrealistic, or unthoughtful speculation: is this failure?   Or is willingness to speculate evidence of “more” proficiency, even when the speculation is silly or cliched or flawed by some other measure?

Maybe we could survey students and ask them about their perspectives on their successes and failures in the course.  After all, they are likely better judges than we are of a course’s success or failure.   I know instructors who too often assume their course was a raging success because of the wonderful things their students write about their classes in their final reflective essays.  But really,  until you’ve delivered a grade, isn’t it likely that most students will say what you need and want to hear in their final reflective papers?  Can we dare measure success by students’ self-reflection?

Anonymous student perspective is why we distribute course evaluations at the end of the semester, and that’s why the academy clearly values them.   Yet, take a look at research on course evaluations and you quickly see how many contextual variables such as grade inflation, perceived leniency, course rigor, whether the course is taught as a  general education or upper level course, and recently, perceptions on online learning environment, can all affect the level of student ratings.  Unless we are willing to consider all of these variables, I’m not sure we can judge success or failure solely on course evaluations.

Then it occurred to me, maybe when people express skepticism about our cMOOC, they mean “failure” in a more personal, life-impacting way for our students.  Does this mean some people fear that by participating in online, open education, our 120 summer students will be failed by the education process in some larger way?

What do you remember about your college classes?  I believe we remember moments in the classroom, not whole classes or whole semesters.  So, years of large lecture classes absolutely failed me as a student.  Why?  I cannot remember any moment in those classes; they are just a blur of note-taking and boredom.

My most striking memory of a college classroom was the one in which I was challenged to DO something.   Every Friday in my Shakespeare class we drew scenes from a hat and brief stage directions from the professor,  indicating how we had to “play” the scene.  These impromptu stage directions were meant to teach us an appreciation for Shakespeare’s fluid and nuanced use of language.  Because he left no stage directions as a playwright,  we had to use  tone and mannerisms and inflections in voice to indicate a range of “assigned” emotions during the same scene played out several times by students in the class.

What I remember was being terrified to take a turn acting out a scene.  What I remember was doing it anyway, because all of my peers were taking a turn, and because I didn’t want to be left out.  Then: I played a flirtatious Portia, sitting on the lap of a male classmate  while I read my lines, drawing out the syllables at the ends of lines, cocking my head, smirking while he talked.  And then: I remember the applause of my peers afterwards, how they passed the hat to collect change for us; and best of all, I remember the pride I felt in having done something I didn’t think I could do, and having it be so favorably judged by my peers.

Where was the professor?  Not there, at least in my memory.  He had structured a space for me to try something new, and then he got out of the way.  When I was challenged I stepped forward, and I learned something.  Not just about Shakespeare’s language.  But something even more important about myself.

I believe our cMOOC is far less likely to fail students than are some of our highly structured face to face classes.   When a student is asked to actively learn, to create something he or she never knew she could create before entering the class (who knew I could be a flirtatious Portia?) the student is more likely to take a risk, try something new, and step out of her comfort zone.   Only by taking a risk can students have that moment of pride and self-efficacy that stays with them a lifetime.

What if we fail?  It’s a risk I’m willing to take.





2 thoughts on “What if (we fail)?

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