Using Technology to Teach Current, Future, and Past Students, All At Once!

Timothy McKay,  Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Physics, Director of the LSA Honors Program & DIG Principle Investigator



Here’s my question for today:

How do I open a formal, on-campus class to serious participation by off-campus informal students both younger and older than those who are in residence?

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about residential education: about what makes the years students spend living in our campus community so important, and how we might make them better.  Perhaps we could extend the residential experience, so that some part of learning in Ann Arbor is made available before students arrive, and long after they depart. Might we find a way to engage today’s students in residence with those of the future, and the past, in a multigenerational intellectual exploration?

I’ve done a lot of formal teaching. For the last three years I have been leading an intellectual history course called Deep Time: the Science of Origins. We begin in the 17th century, when science had little to say about the origin of anything, and end in the moment, with discoveries made while the course is taking place. Working together, we explore what science has learned about origins, how these things were discovered, who contributed, and why progress was made where and when it was. In short, we explore the origins of origin science. The course is part of the Core Curriculum of the Honors Program in our College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, grounded in the grand tradition of the liberal arts, and a blast to teach. I learn something new every day.

I’ve also worked on informal learning. Saturday Morning Physics is an Ann Arbor icon – public science lectures delivered live to large audiences and taped for online distribution.  I’ve given many of these lectures, on topics as various as The Arrow of Time in Physics, How We Know the Big Bang Really Happened, and What We’re Learning from Learning Analytics. Through this work, I’m reminded that interest in scientific discovery knows no age or experience boundaries. People who are not students – from ten year olds to retirees – are as fascinated by the frontiers of knowledge as any college student.

How cool would it be to create an environment in which traditional residential students exploring origin science in a formal way could be joined by Michigan grads participating informally? If we’re going to do this right, the details matter. So let’s start with some more information about how this course works.

Deep Time serves a wide array of first and second year college students, with interests and goals spread across the social sciences, humanities, and natural sciences. Because of this, I have made the student experience as flexible as possible. When we meet, we explore together some central themes, generating a shared understanding. For their own work, students are not merely offered options; they are forced by design to develop their own strategy for exploring the material. This agency fosters enthusiasm, allowing them to pursue the topics they’re most excited by, to develop skills they feel they need, and to do all this in ways which they find most engaging.

Some students choose to explore how sociotechnical systems enable discovery – Darwin’s crucial voyage on the Beagle was made to chart the coast of South America for the Royal Navy. Others pursue the epistemology of historical science – how can you know what happened in the past? Some learn to calculate the critical density of the universe, while others try their hand at the dialog as a genre for argument. All this flexibility is supported by Gradecraft, a gameful learning management system developed by my colleagues here at Michigan. Combining diverse students with the freedom to explore makes the course expand organically – every term the circle of what we explore grows larger, the network of intellectual connections more deeply entangled.

  1. This flexible environment presents both opportunities and challenges for the idea of a genuinely joint on and off-campus course. Here’s what I think we need to do to make this happen: Use technology to make the core content of the class accessible to everyone in the world at the same time and pace that our residential students receive it. This might be done by staging this course on the EdX platform as recorded video segments, shared documents, and forums. This is the key – everyone has to have access to a significant shared understanding of the material.
  2. Define and provide guidance about three equally valid levels of engagement:Formally enrolled participants – those taking the course for college credit; prepared to meet all the expectations of the course, contribute extensively to the course community, and receive a traditional grade for it. They would mostly be on-campus students, but perhaps some might be remote. Their commitment is strengthened, as in most classes, by the payment of tuition and prospect of a permanently recorded grade.Purely interested participants – those partaking of course materials because of interest, making no commitment to persist or contribute to the course community. These participants might be anywhere, on-campus or off, and are welcome to partake of course materials and study opportunities as they choose. They can contribute, but undertake no obligation to do so.Committed informal participants – these participants are something new; a group of mostly off-campus, but perhaps some on-campus people who make a serious commitment to a modest, but serious, level of contribution to the course community. There are no levers of tuition payment or recorded grades to police the commitment of these participants. We have to believe that they’ll come through. Completion of these commitments might be recognized in some less formal way – perhaps with a badging system.
  3. Open some activities to all participants. For example, we might provide ways for all students to interact asynchronously with the texts we explore, through annotations of the texts themselves and commentary on flexible interaction forums. In these cases, we expect participation from formal students and invite it from informal.

  4. Create a small set of substantial research and writing assignments open to both on-campus students and committed informal participants. Participating in these would constitute the core commitment for the CIP track. We want off-campus participants to write to the same prompts as on-campus participants, exchange their work across these lines through a peer review system, and contribute questions to discussions on-campus, online, or both together.

  5. Provide an end-of-term opportunity for committed informal participants to meet in person with on-campus students. At this meeting presentations would be given by selected representatives from both groups, followed by panel discussions, again with mixed participation.

What do you think? If you’ve got other ideas for how to take advantage of technology to create a workable course which brings together formal on-campus students with informal off-campus participants drop me a line. I’d love to hear what you’re thinking.


Hear Tim McKay talk about transitioning a traditional residential course into a multigenerational course this Friday.