In either formal learning, informal learning or models which transition between the two, there are many opportunities for learners to co-create the syllabus and/or outline their own course of action. The sage on the stage of formal instruction must become at the most a guide on the side who acts as a coach appearing only when needed rather than as a lecturer who determines the content that the learners need to master. In the following inspirational but certainly not prescriptive examples, we will focus on co-learning methods drawn from a Social Constructivist perspective, which fits nicely here.
We offer a few examples below to show a range of learner centered approaches. They all are based on co-learners hosting each other for one of a number of digestible topics in the larger subject area or domain that the group formed in order to explore. This can take place across a number of media and timelines.
The following methods will result in each co-learner gaining deep knowledge in a specific topic and moderate knowledge across several topics. The unique joy of this approach is that no two cohorts will ever be the same. The content will always be fresh, relevant, and changing. A group can even reconvene with slightly or dramatically different topics over and over using the same underlying process.
The appropriateness of the learner-created syllabus technique depends on two factors: 1) the involvement of experts in the group and 2) the level of proficiency of the group. In general, novices who may or may not have a deep interest in the subject matter benefit from more structure and experts who point to key concepts and texts. An example of this is the university survey course for first or second year students who, we assume, need more guidance as they enter the subject matter. Graduate seminars are generally much more fluid, open dialogues between motivated experts require little structure or guidance.
We also need effective methods for groups which contain novices, experts, and everyone in between. In groups with a wide range of expertise, it is important that each co-learner chooses to focus their deep inquiry on a topic that they are less familiar with. This will even out the expertise level across the cohort as well as ensure that a co-learner is neither bored nor dominating the dialogue.
3 example designs to structure the learning
Weekly topics structure
One way to structure the course is to have each co-learner host a topic each week. Perhaps multiple students host their topics in the same week. This progression provides a rotation of presentations and activities to support the entire group in engaging with the topics and challenges to the thinking of the presenters in a constructive and respectful manner.
Pro: co-learners have discrete timelines and manageable chunks of responsibility.
Con: the format may become disjointed, and the depth of inquiry will likely be somewhat shallow.
Milestone based structure
In this structure, each co-learner hosts their topics in parallel with similar activities and milestones that the whole group moves through together. Milestones can be set for a certain date, or the group can unlock their next milestone whenever all participants have completed the previous milestone. This second milestone timeline can be great for informal groups in which participation levels vary from week to week due to external factors, and the sense of responsibility and game-like levels can be motivating for many co-learners.
Each co-learner may start with a post of less than 500 words introducing the topic on a superficial level. When everyone has done this, the group might move on to posting questions to the post authors. Then, there may be a summary post of the activity so far with critical recommendations or insights.
Pro: co- learners have more time to digest a topic, formulate a complex schema, and generate deeper questions.
Con: it will be a few weeks before the topic level schema can form into a broader understanding of the subject matter or domain (seeing the big picture takes longer).
Relay learning structure.
This is similar to the milestone structure. However, co-learners rotate topics. If one learner posts an introductory write-up on a topic the first cycle, they may be researching questions on another topic in the next cycle, posting a summary in a third, and then posting a summary on their original topic in the fourth.
Pro: co-learners can experience responsibility for several topics.
Con: co-learners may receive a topic that is poorly researched or otherwise neglected.
A vast number of topics
Within a subject of mutual interest to a group, there are a considerable number of topics or questions. What is important is that each co-learner can take responsibility for a reasonably narrow area given the duration of the course or the timeline of the group. Areas that are too broad will result in a very superficial understanding, and areas that are too narrow will result in a dull experience. For example, in marine biology, topics such as “the inter-tidal zone” may be too broad for a course cycle of a few weeks. Narrowing to one species may be too specific for a course over a few months.
Learner generated topics
Most cohorts will have some knowledge of the shared area of interest or an adjacent area. It is a good idea to respect the knowledge and experience that each member of the group brings to the table. A facilitator or coordinator may generate a list of potential topic areas, setting an example of the scale of a topic. We suggest that the participants in the group are also polled for additions to the list. In large courses, sending out a Google Form via email can be an effective way to get a quick list with a high response rate.
Expert informed topics
If there is no expert facilitator in the group, we suggest that the cohort begin their journey with a few interviews of experts to uncover what the main buzz words and areas of focus might be. One way to locate this type of expert help is through contacting authors in the subject matter on social networks, reviewing their posts for relevance, and reaching out with the request.
We recommend two people interview the expert over video chat, for example in a Hangout. One person conducts the interview, and one person takes notes and watches the time. We strongly suggest that the interview be outlined ahead of time:
Warm up: Who are you, what are your goals, and why do you think this interview will help?
Foundational questions: Ask a few questions that might elicit short answers to build rapport and get your interviewee talking.
Inquiry: What people say and what they do can often be very different. Ask about topics required for mastery of the subject matter (e.g. What are the areas someone would need to know about to be considered proficient in this subject?). Also, ask questions that require storytelling. Avoid superlative or close-ended questions.
Wrap up: Thank the interviewee for his or her time, and be sure to follow up by sharing both what you learned and what you accomplished because he or she helped you.
Shared goals and group norms
Choosing useful outputs
Getting together for the sake of sharing what you know in an informal way can be fairly straightforward and somewhat useful. Most groups find that a common purpose and output that are explicitly defined and documented help to engage, motivate, and drive the group. For the examples above, the group may decide to create a blog with posts on the various topics or create a wiki where they can share their insights. Other outputs can include community service projects, business proposals, recommendations to senior management or administration, new products, and more. The key is to go beyond sharing for sharing sake and move toward an output that will be of use beyond the co-learning group. This activity is best described in Connectivist theory as the special case of networked learning where we find evidence of learning in collective action and/or behavioral change in groups rather than a psychological or neurological process in individuals.
Group cohesion (a.k.a. the rules of the road)
One challenge of this kind of collaboration is that each group will need to decide on norms, acceptable practices and behaviors. Culturally diverse groups in particular may run into communication or other issues unless there is a way to create shared expectations and communicate preferences.
One way to do this is with a team charter. This is a living document where the initial rules of engagement can live for reference. The group may add or edit this document over time based on experience, and that is a welcome thing! This documentation is a huge asset for new members joining the group who want to contribute quickly and effectively. Any co-editing word processing program will work, but we strongly recommend something that can be edited simultaneously and that lives in the cloud. (Google Docs is convenient because you can also embed your Charter into another site.)
Try starting with the following three sections, and allow some time for the group to co-edit and negotiate the document between icebreakers and kicking off the official learning process.
Mission: Why are you forming the group? What do you want to accomplish together?
Members: It is useful to include a photo and a link to a public profile such as Twitter, Google+ or Facebook.
Assessments and feedback loops
Co-authored assessment rubrics
Tests. Quizzes. Exams. How can the co-learning group assess their performance?
These types of courses benefit from an approach similar to coaching. Set goals as individuals and a group in the beginning, define what success looks like, outline steps that are needed to achieve the goal, check in on the goal progress periodically, and assess the results at the end of the course against the goal criteria. Goals may include domain expertise, a business outcome, a paper demonstrating mastery, a co-created resource, or even the quality of collaboration and adherence to shared group norms.
Learner created assessments
Another effective way to create an assessment is to decide on an individual or group output and create a peer assessment rubric based on the goals of the individual or group.
One way to create a rubric is to spend some time defining the qualities you want your output to have based on positive examples. Perhaps a group wants to create a blog. Each person on the team may identify the qualities of a great blog post based on examples that they admire. They can use that example to create a criteria for assessment of co-learner authored blog posts. We recommend that the criteria have a 0 to 5 point scale with 0 being non-existent and 5 being superb. Writing a few indicators in the 1, 3, and 5 columns helps to calibrate reviewers.
Create a shared document, perhaps starting with a list of criteria. Collapse similar criteria into one item, and create the indicators or definitions of 1, 3, and 5 point performance. Agree on the rubric, and decide on how the co-learners will be assigned assessment duties. WIll everyone review at least two others? Will each co-learner product need at least 3 reviewers before it goes live? Will you use a spreadsheet or a form to collect the assessments?
In a university setting, the instructor of record may wish to approve a peer assessment rubric, and it is sometimes a good idea to have a few outside experts give feedback on criteria that the group may have missed.
It is possible that an instructor of record or similar authority will create the assessment for performance. In these cases, it is crucial that the co-learners have access to the grading rubric ahead of time so that they can ensure their activities and timeline will meet any requirements. In this case, it may be possible to require that the co-learners self-organize entirely, or there may be intermediary assignments such as the charter, project plan or literary review.
Cyclical use of these models
So much more to learn
As mentioned above, the joy of this type of learning is that no two groups will ever do it the same. Their process, goals, and outcomes can all be unique. As designers and facilitators of this type of learning environment, we can say it is a wild ride! Each class is exciting, refreshing, and on trend. The co-learners become our teachers.
If a group generates more topics than it is possible to cover at one time given the number of group members or if a group has plans to continue indefinitely, it is always possible to set up a system where potential topics are collected at all times. These unexplored topics can be harvested for use in another learning cycle, continuing until the group achieves comprehensive mastery.
This format is not without its own unique pitfalls: some challenges are learner disorientation or frustration in a new learning structure with ambiguous expectations and uneven participation. Some groups simply never gel, and we do not know why they have failed to achieve the cohesion required to move forward. Other groups are the exact opposite. Here are a few risks to consider if you would like to try the methods suggested here and how to mitigate them.
Uneven expertise: Ask co-learners to be responsible for topics that are new to them.
Uneven participation and cohesion: Ask co-learners what they want to do to motivate the group rather than imposing your own ideas.
Experts/facilitators that kill the conversation: In the charter or other documentation, explicitly state that the purpose of the discussion is to further the conversation, and encourage experts to allow others to explore their own thinking by asking probing (not leading) questions.
Ambiguous goals: Encourage the group to document their mission and what they will do as a team. This can change over time, but it is best to start out with a clear purpose.
Make mistakes. Correct course. Invite new perspectives. Create a structure that everyone can work with. Change it when it breaks. Most of all, have fun!