Monday, 29 April 2013

Integrated Thinking and Online Curating

Discussions about the necessity of integrated thinking abound today, as do large-scale educational experiments with this concept.  Quest University in Squamish B.C. was founded in 2007 to teach students techniques to creatively combine rather than simply reiterate what they have learned.  Students there are encouraged to integrate knowledge from across disciplines to explore a central, self-directed question.  More recently, the Rotman School of Management in Toronto has teamed up with a variety of public and private K-12 schools to provide students and staff with lessons in integrative thinking.  The brainchild of Rotman dean Roger Martin, the I-Think program is designed to teach students alternatives to either-or decision making.  Meanwhile, the Ontario Ministry of Education as a whole has been tinkering with the idea of providing more integrated course offerings since 2002.  Interdisciplinary Studies is an exciting framework which allows Ontario secondary school teachers to offer senior level courses covering ministry expectations from across the curriculum.
It is truly wonderful to see these progressive changes in educational thought; however, it has thus far proven challenging to apply integrative thinking techniques to the day to day realities of the classroom.  As with most philosophies, the devil is in the details.  This is why I have recently been experimenting with online curating as a tangible, accessible application for integrated thinking.  I first came across the amazing curating site while consulting for Twenty One Toys, an educational start-up working out of the Centre for Social Innovation.  In my brief time working in this environment I have been amazed at the seemingly natural ability of entrepreneurs to access and synthesize tremendous amounts of information.  This is precisely the kind of thinking I want to cultivate in my students (and in myself!)  Upon closer inspection, I have come to understand that the ability to navigate and creatively connect large amounts of information is a logical process which can be both learned and taught, with a little help from the internet. is part of a growing group of sites which allow users to collect, organize, and reflect on online content.  This process begins by defining a unique topic which acts as a unifying arc for all content linked to the site.  When users post information which they have found online, they are asked to offer their brief insights.  They can choose to share these insights on a variety of social media sites, and when they have collected enough content they can even publish an online newsletter based on their efforts.  Using the site is very easy, but it allows for useful and challenging applications of integrative thought.  I am in the process of experimenting with it in a variety of ways:
·         Providing interactive homework: Homework should be an opportunity for students to build upon what was taught in class. can be used to provide students opportunities to arrive at divergent rather than convergent conclusions about my courses. 
I am trying an approach to homework in which the majority of at home readings/video posts are provided on my page.  Each student scoops course content from here onto a page they curate themselves.  More importantly, they will expand upon this content by finding a related item (article, video, photo, blog, poem, song…) for each resource I have provided.  By the end of the term, each student will have built an online “textbook” which reflects both the structure of the course, and their unique insights.  I am also encouraging students to publish their scoops on Twitter and/or Facebook to stimulate discussions outside of class.  And although I do not want to frame this as a numbers-based exercise, I do think that the possibility of gaining followers and increasing traffic to their page will provide additional incentive to curate interesting content.

·         Emphasizing interactive studying techniques: Tests have gained the unfortunate and inaccurate reputation as the ultimate crucibles of the educational process.  Rather than being a confrontational activity, a well composed test allows students to think holistically about a given section of a course.  It has always bothered me, therefore, that so many students prepare for these integrative exercises by re-writing course concepts in fragmented notes or flashcards.  While thinking that they are being efficient studiers by focusing on isolated areas of misunderstanding, what they are actually doing is robbing themselves of the context which makes the entire course cohere. 
Last semester, I challenged my students to use to prepare for their Communication Technologies exam.  I wanted to see if the process of actively searching for course content, rather than passively reiterating it from their notes, would lead to greater success.  Beyond that, this exercise was also used to encourage my students to go beyond what they had learned.  In addition to posting content related directly to course content, each student had to include and justify content which explored ways that the internet is fundamentally changing the history I had taught them.  An example of a student’s first attempt can be viewed here.
·         Teaching integrative research techniques: Increasing instances of plagiarism, and the less serious but still troublesome problem of students equating research success with quantity both stem from the same misguided assumption that research is only about gathering information.  The age old adage that “knowledge is power” needs to be updated to reflect the realities of a knowledge soaked digital world; “connections are power” is a much more fitting slogan for the age of the web.  Using techniques practiced throughout the term in activities briefly outlined above, I hope to convince my students of this.