One of my favorite academic parables (yes, I have a favorite) is the story of a tough-nosed astronomy professor who never liked to give out ‘A’s. One semester he had an especially bright class that achieved high marks on every quiz and exam throughout the course, no matter how difficult the problems. When it came time for the final, the students arrived expecting a traditional exam with pages of questions. Instead, they received a single piece of paper with one sentence: Define the universe and give three examples.
Like most large introductory undergraduate courses on campus, World Regional Geography is a lot like the professor’s question: Define geography and give three examples. In ten weeks the course is supposed to provide an introduction into the very diverse and interdisciplinary discipline of geography, take a large class of students on a virtual trip around the planet, teach them about key concepts like globalization, and expose them to different cultural and political perspectives which—one hopes—will help these budding leaders of tomorrow appreciate differences “out there” in the world and right within their own classroom. It’s a tall order, and one I’m proud to see so many of my colleagues do with enthusiasm and grace. (I have not instructed the course myself.) Motivated by an opportunity to improve course design and instruction, Dr. Ola Ahlqvist, from the Department of Geography, and graduate instructors have worked together during the past year to enhance the course.
I had the honor of working with Dr. Ahlqvist, Rob Griffiths from the Digital Union, and fellow graduate students on a re-design of World Regional Geography during Spring Quarter. Through this process, I have learned the following valuable and transferable lessons:
- The Digital Union Rocks—No, really. I didn’t realize the breadth of services and expertise of the the wizards on the third floor of the Science and Engineering Laboratory. My meetings with Rob Griffiths were always productive. I encourage new instructors or anyone attempting to design a course to visit the DU. (That’s ‘dee-yoo’, as in, “Hey, Bartholemew, where did you learn to set up a cool Carmen homepage?” “Easy, Patty. I went to the DU.”)
- Do More With Carmen—Carmen might seem like just a place to manage grades and post lectures. But if that’s all you’re using it for, you are really missing out—especially if you’re managing a large undergraduate course. You can use Carmen to manage homework and projects, assign and quickly grade out-of-class activities, and provide/connect current media to group discussion, and manage course content from quarter to quarter—ahem, quarter to semester.
- (Do More with Carmen so that you can…) Do More with Class Time—Following a concept called “flipping the classroom”, you can use Carmen to expose students to concepts and materials before they arrive in class so that you can use class time to dive deeper into the material through case studies and group work. This ensures that you, the teacher, can be there as students are applying key concepts when they need you the most.
- Wheel. Invented. Don’t need to do it again—Once you create that mind-blowing class use Carmen to store banks of questions, quizzes, assignments, lectures, reading materials, and discussion threads for future courses, whether you are teaching it again or passing it off to someone else. You (or others) can rearrange questions, change grading criteria, or modify video links to keep up with current events. Carmen can be used to efficiently and effectively develop a course with a rich history and constant improvements.
- Students Come First—The goal of the staff at the Digital Union, Carmen learning management system, and university teaching overall is to make the student experience more meaningful and exciting. Despite popular attempts to automate entire courses on the Internet, the value of great higher education will always be the personal interaction and moments of inspiration that students and teachers alike enjoy when they meet together in the same physical space and collaboratively think through the important problems of our day.
This quarter has been an exciting and successful attempt to “define geography” in ten weeks or less. I’m happy to say that with a supportive department, the advocacy of Dr. Ahlqvist, and Rob’s expertise, World Regional Geography is about to get a terrific upgrade.