Friday, November 1, 2013

A case study in deep and engaged learning: A virtual tour of BYU

I have been accused (and probably rightfully so) at times in the past of being overly critical of my own institution (as an aside, my response has been and still is that I'm critical of what happens at BYU because I care deeply about its mission and hold those who work and learn here to a high standard).  So, periodically, I intentionally go looking for good things happening on my campus.  I found one this week.

A team of 15 students from BYU' BYU's College of Fine Arts and Communications has developed a virtual tour of BYU's Provo, Utah campus.  In addition to the fantastic visuals tour goers encounter, there are opportunities to explore historic images, video content, and social media plug-ins.  And, just as an in-person campus tour might be interpreted as a mechanism for telling various aspects of the "story" of an institution (this article from +Peter Magolda makes one of the best arguments for this idea that I've read), a virtual tour has the potential to tell other aspects of this story, using different means of storytelling.  And, it's a tour that a student can "take" from anywhere in the world, and any number of times.  Finally, because the tour is self-directed, it allows students to customize their experience and search for the things they need, as opposed to the traditional canned, one-size-fits-all tours led by a student leader (though this format clearly has its own advantages).
But, this post isn't about the virtues of the tour itself, but rather the process that led to its creation.

The project was organized and coordinated by BYU's +Laycock Center, which is housed within the College of Fine Arts and Communications and whose mission is to provide students and faculty members within the college with opportunities to collaboratively develop solutions that address real problems both at BYU and elsewhere.  It's a great example of how an academic unit can provide meaningful opportunities for students to integrate their academic work with what they might term "real life."  And, the virtual tour project illustrates a number of best practices for the deep and engaged learning that should be happening in higher education more often.

1.  It was collaborative . . ..  The project led to good learning for the students who participated, in large part because it involved them in interacting with other students.  Instead of holing students up in the basement of the library to prepare for an exam, write a paper, or do some other kind of lonely academic work, the project brought students together to gather data, analyze a problem, and develop a solution that drew upon their collective knowledge, skill, and experience.  Listen to what one IT student had to say about his experience with the project:   "I thought it would just be coding things, but I was able to meet so many good people and learn a lot of new skills." As the student alludes to, this team approach was likely a bit jarring or even frustrating for some students accustomed to working on their own, but led to a much better learning experience than they would have had with a traditional do-it-yourself project.

2.  . . . and interdisciplinary.  Not only did students work collaboratively, but they worked collaboratively with people from outside their departments.  So, there were musicians working alongside actors, and IT students trying to get along with students in journalism.  In addition to improving the quality of the final product, this cross-section of perspectives and skill sets provided opportunities for students to hear new ideas, practice representing their own ideas in coherent ways for others who think very differently, and to see how ideas are improved when they emerge from dialogue among a diverse group of thinkers.

3.  Support from faculty mentors.  Although the project was largely student-driven, students weren't completely on their own.  They worked closely with faculty mentors who could provide guidance, raise new questions, direct students to resources, and provide feedback all along the way.  And, this participation alongside experts is just as important for learning as is the experience of working through problems with other novice peers.  When a student is mentored by a faculty member they see how an expert does their work and how they think about problems.  Those are things they can't learn from a textbook or a collaborative project that involves only their peers (valuable as that may be).

4.  Expanded opportunities for future experience.  I've blogged before about John Dewey's criteria for educative experience, one of which is the notion of continuity.  In a nutshell, this criterion emphasizes the need for a learning experience to expand a learner's possibilities for future learning experiences.  Thus, a good learning experience is one that serves as a springboard for future learning.  And, this is exactly what happened for two of the student leads who worked on the virtual tour.  One is an advertising student, the other is a student in Information Technology--two groups that rarely interact.  However, their experience collaborating together on the virtual tour, not only convinced them of the philosophical value of collaborative efforts, but led them to join forces for work on additional projects since completion of the tour.  Virtually every institution of higher education contains some kind of language in their mission statement about life-long or continued learning, and students' continued participation in collaborative, interdisciplinary work is tremendous evidence that this objective has been meant (much more telling than a students response to a survey item inviting them to report their likeliness to "continue learning."

As educators, we need to be providing more opportunities like this for students.  Teaching and educating, ultimately, is about providing learners with experiences that shape and transform them.  Although increased knowledge, skill, and understanding come along the way, this should all be subsumed by a more holistic change in a learner's view of the world.  And, that's what I see happening (even on a very small scale) among students who have opportunities like those who participated in developing the campus tour.  And, even if you don't care all that much about learning (I know no one working in higher ed would ever knowingly admit this, but you know who you are), these kinds of experiences have relevance for the financial and business sides of the institutional house.  Listen to how one student's perspective of the institution changed as she worked on the virtual tour project:
"I'm a senior, and honestly, I was starting to get kind of sick of campus, [said +Paris Sorbonne, an advertising student who served as the project manager on the virtual tour] but there was this moment during this project when I thought 'I want to be here.'  This campus is just so beautiful.  There is a legacy behind it.  It's changed lives.  So that split second when I felt that, I thought this is what I want the tour to be about."
Working on the tour didn't just enhance Sorbonne's learning experience, it helped her understand and connect with the institutional narrative at BYU.  And, that left here feeling a sense of purpose and motivation that had been missing before the project.  That connectedness is likely to stay with her long after she graduates, and that holds big implications for the type of alumnus she'll be.

So, whether you're a faculty member, administrator, or someone working in the enrollment management, business, or alumni office, you should care about whether or not this type of thing is happening on your campus.

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