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Compressing & Crystallizing Knowledge

Representing the Complexity of Teaching Succinctly

Making knowledge of teaching and learning visible so that faculty and teachers can learn from each other's work is one of the key goals of the scholarship of teaching and learning. The Knowledge Media Laboratory has been investigating this significant issue by exploring and devising new genres and formats to help faculty and teachers, programs, and institutions carry out this work using multimedia and the Web. This exhibition highlights some of the examples and techniques that enable us to transform the complex knowledge of teaching and learning into a compact, intellectually engaging, and usable format. As our understanding of this work evolves, we hope these efforts enable faculty and teachers to continue building their collective knowledge as a community of practice and reflection.

Needs for Models and Genres

Using electronic portfolios and other kinds of multimedia representations is one of the most promising ways to document, represent and share knowledge related to teaching and student learning.   However, these representations often lack conciseness and portability. For example, electronic portfolios can be just cumbersome collections of teaching and learning objects and records.

Imagine that you are a faculty member or a teacher who is interested in documenting teaching and student learning and sharing it with others. You have volumes of data such as project reports, video clips of classroom activities, course materials, student work examples, and references. Technically, you can put all of these "objects" of teaching and learning online. However, it would be extremely difficult for others to make sense out of all these objects and learn from your work. Hence, the challenge is how you can package them in a succinct way and make them "visually appealing" and "intellectually engaging" to others.

Cerbin Image   Cerbin Image 2

Refining the Unit of Analysis

In order to focus in on the day-to-day interactions of teaching and learning, however, representing what happens in particular classes or learning activities may have to take precedence over detailing the design of the overall course or documenting development over long periods of time. For example, William Cerbin, an educational psychologist at University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, had an extensive set of instructional materials, reflections, and analyses of student learning that he and the members of the KML collected in an online course portfolio, but in that portfolio it was difficult to recognize the innovative problem-based approach he used in his class sessions. Therefore, the members of the KML developed an alternative site that focuses on Cerbin's teaching during a single class period. In it, one can listen to Cerbin's opening lecture, see the prompts and results of the individual writing assignment and group discussions that followed, and get access to Cerbin's analysis of student understanding in the class. Viewers can still get access to all the materials in the other site, but they do not have to wade their way through them to learn how the classes are structured and to get access to materials they can adapt for their own uses.

Framing the Questions

Elizabeth Barkley, a music professor at Foothill Community College in California, created an electronic teaching portfolio that documents her successful 4-year general music course transformation effort. In her portfolio, she uses the traditional"5W2H" questions of journalism—who, what where, etc.—to allow readers to get key information about her project. In addition, a theme-based table format was used to help readers get an overview of the major research topics, such as "Changing to Multicultural Content" and "Empowering Students to be Architects of Their Own Learning," as well as understand both the process and outcomes of her project in a succinct way. There are also a series of "mini" discussion forums embedded in these tables. These discussion forums provide the viewers of this portfolio quick access to Elizabeth's initial reflections that focus on the critical issues related to her effort and allow them to post their own reflections. The welcome page presents a short introductory video clip that gives viewers an overview of this work.

Balancing Scope and Granularity

The problem with "going for scope," however, is that it leaves little room, time and attention to focus in on particular classes or other aspects of teaching and learning. One can include documentation of particular classes, but that can easily get lost and buried in other materials or distract from the larger points. An alternative is to shift the focus from overall design and outcomes to the development of a course and students' learning within it. For example, Deborah Smith, a teacher educator from Michigan State, sought to document the development of her pre-service student teachers' competence and confidence as teachers of science. The site she and the members of the KML created tries to balance the tension between scope and granularity by laying out an interactive syllabus—offering some assignments, student work samples and instructor commentary—and by describing the course through four key phases that viewers can scan and comprehend more quickly and easily.

Use of Digital Video

Similarly, dozens of hours of digital video that captures various aspects of classroom teaching and learning can be easily produced nowadays, but turning it into a compact and comprehensive form that allows peers to examine, reflect on, and learn from it is a daunting task.

Building Context

While many of the previous websites try to give you the full span of a project and an assessment system, with Yvonne Hutchinson we've tried to zero in on just one class so that we can highlight the skills and strategies she uses to orchestrate group discussions and scaffold students' analyses of literary texts. (For a while, people were just passing a tape of her NBPTS discussion around from one support group to another). This site provides you with some of her reflections on her approach and some of the strategies and routines she uses to structure these discussions, along with short video clips that illustrate how the class develops and the discussion unfolds and provides some of the students' reflections as well. You can also view the whole video should you wish to. So in this example, the use of video to document the classroom interactions of teacher and student is foregrounded within the context of Yvonne's vision, the overall course design, and the outcomes, providing an effective means to examine, critique, and learn from her work.

Documenting Progress

Barbara Gayle, a CASTL scholar and professor of communication studies at the University of Portland, adapted Cerbin's class anatomy format to create a "snapshot" portfolio of her students' development in a public speaking course. Rather than using the portfolio to focus on a single class, Gayle uses it to track students' growth by presenting videos of the four presentations that students produce during the course and by providing her reflections and analysis in the form of selections from her journal. Although Gayle had never produced a website before, she was able to produce this "snapshot" portfolio in a matter of days. The completed work allows viewers to quickly see, compare and contrast the highlights of different students' performance over the course of the class term.

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