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Creating Powerful Learning Experiences: Big XII TLC Keynote

NextThought team — October 31, 2018



[The following is the script from my keynote address delivered at the Big XII Teaching and Learning Conference on July 30, 2015.]

I want to begin by thanking Oklahoma State University for hosting this conference and, more specifically, the great people at ITLE for asking me to share my thoughts about student engagement.

Student engagement 

Before we launch into our exploration of student engagement, I'd like to begin the session with a simple improvisation exercise. This particular improvisation is called "Improvisation with an Object." It's a type of improv I use in classes and workshop presentations to help participants expand their thinking – or at least to help them start thinking differently.

Improvisation exercises

For this improv, I want you to divide up into groups of two or three. When you're ready, I'll start the video. All you need to do then is follow the instructions.

This is what we call a "constraint" improvisation. Typical answers include hat, nose, earring, dog bowl, flying saucer, button, mushroom, cushion, and house for tiny people.

As you'll see, I'm a big fan of improvisations. They're an excellent framework for promoting engagement in our courses, whether we're teaching in face-to-face, hybrid, or online environments. I also like improvs as teaching prompts because they help students feel safe while they're being encouraged to expand their thinking. Improvs are also great activities for building collaboration.

What "student engagement" means

Our topic today is student engagement and it's an important topic. It must be, given all the discussion we're having about it these days. And yet, even with all the discussion, the term obviously has different meanings for different people.

For example: some use "student engagement" to refer to increased student interaction with course materials. Others seem to think it refers to more activity outside the classroom. Still others use it as a reference to improved student retention. And there are those for whom it simply means improvement in overall student performance.

But even though we're not exactly sure what it means, we do seem to agree that student engagement is both important and desirable. We also agree, in our discussions of student engagement, that there's an implicit understanding that we don't have enough of it in our current courses.

In other words, the notion of student engagement challenges the efficacy of our classrooms and institutions. And, as usual, when we're challenged we look for answers.

If we don't have enough student engagement or perhaps the right kind of student engagement in our classes, there must be a problem. Of course, if you ask us what the problem is, we give a variety of answers.

Lack of student engagement 

Some say the lack of student engagement is a technology problem. Others insist it's a content problem. Still others believe the fault lies with the students while others say it's with the instructors. Finally, there are those who suggest we're facing a much bigger problem altogether. They say our lack of student engagement is an institutional problem.

Thinking about these different answers reminds me of a quote from Dave Cormier.

I can see by the nodding heads out there that this quote resonates with many of you. Interestingly, I think it also captures a great deal of the dialogue and miscommunication we have about student engagement within our institutions.

What I find most important, however – and this is not a criticism of Dave, who is a true thought leader when it comes to redefining online educational models – is that this statement points so definitively to the fact that we live in a world where the course and the instructor continue to reside at the center of the teaching and learning universe.

Indeed, we live and teach and learn inside an artificial model that champions a centripetal model for learning, a model in which the primary directional forces for learning flow inward toward an artificial center.

Of course, we come by this artificial centripetal model honestly. It's a model that was developed for economic and cultural reasons and that's been passed down to us through the generations. It's a model that establishes not just artificial geographic locations, and not just artificial places and buildings at those locations, but it designates special, artificial zones within those buildings where people are supposed to go at artificially designated times to learn about artificial collections of information.

The model establishes boundaries for learning

It's a model that establishes artificial temporal boundaries for learning – measured conveniently or inconveniently in weeks, months, and years – where we put groups of strangers in artificial spaces and proclaim that they are, of course, members of a learning community.

It's difficult to imagine a design or model that could resemble real learning any less.

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The problem lies with our model of learning

I would argue that our challenges with student engagement aren't about technology, or content, or students, or instructors, or even our institutions. Rather, the problem we face is our very model of learning itself.

Learning is a centrifugal force

This is because the actual nature of real learning is not centripetal – it's centrifugal. Real learning doesn't pull inward but rather pushes us outward.

This is because the actual nature of real learning is not centripetal – it's centrifugal. Real learning doesn't pull inward but rather pushes us outward. Real learning is comprised of a vast network of nodes, each representing a connection with a person or a source of information. And at the center of this vast networking is the student. And from here, from the student at the center, the natural forces expand centrifugally, flowing out, naturally and organically.

Real learning is student engagement. Student engagement is real learning. It's about students connecting, and reaching outward, and interacting with the people and the information they need.

In this centrifugal model, "student engagement" becomes defined as helping each student connect within his or her network to as many learning nodes as possible.

That includes, by the way, helping students connect with themselves so as to have the necessary personal motivation and context for making meaningful learning connections with others.

The more connections we can encourage students to make in their personal learning networks, the greater chance we have at fostering learning experiences that will endure beyond the next test, beyond the semester – ideally, beyond graduation. That practice of giving students a learning mentality that will endure is something that matters.

Provide the right learning environments

We can provide learning environments that are powerful and transformative. We can move our learners beyond perfunctory data noise into actual information and knowledge and, if we really approach it right, all the way to the accrual of wisdom. We've all taken classes as students where we had this happen.

In this centrifugal model, student engagement is not a quantitative problem. It's not about getting them to do more work or a greater percentage of it. It's not about getting them to listen to us more. In fact, in this model, student engagement is not about us as instructors or even the course per se.

It's about the students. They are the new center of gravity of learning. And, as such, our mission to engage students becomes much clearer. It is a qualitative practice, one focused specifically on relevance, agency, and community.

Again, by the smiles and nodding of heads, it seems you agree with the idea of a new model. You understand the notion of learning networks and the need to stimulate greater activity and interactivity within those networks if we want to generate more meaningful student engagement.

And yet, even as we nod and smile, we're only a few moments away from the harsh realization that, while it makes lots of sense, it'll be a tough change for us to make.

"Why will it be so hard?" you ask.

The challenges

It's a lot like the creativity test George Land administered back in 1968. He had developed the test for NASA to identify innovative engineers and scientists, and it worked so well on adults that he decided to administer it to children. So, he tested 1600 children between he ages of 3-5. He then tested those same children again when they were 10, and again when they were 15. The results are fascinating.

The children tested when they were five-years-old scored 98% on the creativity test. When they were ten, they scored 30%. At age fifteen, they scored only 12%. By comparison, the 280,000 adults Land tested scored only an average of 2% in creativity.

Land concluded the scores were proof that non-creative behavior is actually learned. Over the years, our society and educational systems literally train creativity out of us.

In the same way, I would argue that we have been taught non-engaging learning models since we were children and we've replicated them as adults. Over the years – over multiple generations – we've effectively drained our learning models of almost all real engagement.

And that's why it's so hard for us to change our learning model – we've been at this one such a long time.

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Think about this

But take heart – maybe all we need, as George Carlin put it, is a bit of "vuja de."

Vuja de. It's about seeing old things in new ways.

Bob Sutton talks about vuja de in his book Weird Ideas That Work. He says it's about being able to keep shifting our opinions and perceptions. It means shifting our focus from objects or patterns in the foreground to those in the background. It means thinking of things that are usually assumed to be negative as though they were positive, and vice versa. It means being able to reverse assumptions about cause and effect, or about what matters most and what matters least.

And when it comes to vuja de – to getting our minds to think differently – particularly in education, I can think of no better example than the artist Phil Hansen.

Wow! Right? I mean wow! There are so many great things to like about this video. But in the context of this discussion about shifting our learning model, the most important lesson is found in his realization that we have to learn to think "inside the box." It's so profound and so very helpful.

So, as we look at reimagining our learning models, at exploring how to engage students in meaningful ways, and at creating powerful learning experiences, we need to begin by embracing our own constraints.

We need to recognize and accept that we work within institutions. We operate within silos. We work within physical and/or technological frameworks that seem confining and non-engaging by design. And we have students who have not been trained to learn within network models.

Just as Phil Hansen "embraced the shake," we can embrace our constraints too. And, while we have obvious constraints to work with, it's important to remember that – just as Phil remained anchored in his core identity as an artist – we in higher education have a clear identity and heritage as well. We have a heritage of learning. We are, by definition, designed for research and collaborative problem solving. Our heritage is one of addressing and thinking about big problems.

Kerry Magruder, Chair of the University of Oklahoma's History of Science Collection, does a fantastic job of talking about this in the context of higher education and science.

I love Kerry's emphasis on communities of collaboration. They sound a lot like networked learning to me, which is exactly the model we want to facilitate in order to foster a learning that engages students and expands outward beyond the traditional course boundaries.

It's a model for presenting information in ways that are relevant to each individual learner so he or she can make it his or her own.

It's about developing frameworks that allow students to make knowledge personal and to actually become owners of their education.

It's about facilitating collaborative communities, communities of inquiry that allow student networks to grow and endure.

It's about exploration and focusing on open-ended problems and innovative solutions.

Student engagement is about presenting information that's contextualized within the real world so it becomes relevant to students' lives and interests. I'm talking about real-world problems, big problems, problems that are engaging and that may not have ready or even right answers.

That's the kind of problem GE was trying to solve when it decided to create a portable ECG for use in rural India. They had to come up with a product that could function without electricity. They had to reduce their lightest model to date – 15 lbs. – to one that would weigh no more than 3 lbs. The price per unit would need to be dropped from $3000 to $500. The cost of an ECG to the patient would need to go from $20 to $2. It also had to be reliable, easy to use and easy to maintain.


It's also the kind of real-world problem caused by the earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan in 2011. In addition to massive property destruction and power outages, there was a nuclear reactor meltdown in Fukushima.

This nuclear crisis led to intense fear among the population about radiation levels. Unfortunately, reliable information was hard to come by in the days immediately after the meltdown. Government media outlets reported radiation levels as being safe but no one knew for sure. There was no reliable data.

Joi Ito, Director of the MIT Media Lab and a Japanese American with relatives in Japan, began working almost immediately with others around the globe to solve this data issue. At first, they thought it would be as simple as buying Geiger counters and distributing them to people throughout Japan to help collect the necessary data. Faced with a shortage of Geiger counters on the market, they mobilized to design a do-it-yourself Geiger counter that could be strapped to a car and send radiation data and GPS locations to a satellite, from which it would be distributed to scientists around the world.

A big problem. A collaborative community. An incredible solution.

Creating a learning that engages our students 

So, building on Kerry Magruder's comments, let's ask again – how do we create a learning that engages our students in meaningful ways? How do we design powerful learning experiences that infuse our environments with a centrifugal force that pushes students out into their networks to connect and grow beyond our courses?

Over the years, I've found a few techniques that work particularly well when it comes to facilitating increased student engagement in courses. These techniques involve modeling information, presenting information more actively, designing activities for student agency, and creating a foundation for community beyond the class cohort. Each of these techniques works well across different learning environments as well as across different disciplines. You can use these techniques in face-to-face classrooms, with flipped learning, and in hybrid or completely online courses. You can also adapt them easily to any subject and level of instruction.


Improvisations are an extremely useful technique when it comes to modeling information for students or to presenting information in ways that are more engaging and participatory.

Improvisations, in this sense, are models or prompts that frame a set of information and then ask participants to extend or build on that information in some way.

The two types of improvisations I use most are "constraint" and "addition" improvs. Constraint improvisations are great because they have such affinity with the real world. Most people, students in particular, generally feel their lives are one big constraint improvisation. They are constantly trying to figure out how to make things work with limited resources.

The "improvisation with an object" activity I used at the beginning of this presentation is a simple constraint improv. You were constrained by the amount of time and the fact that your answers could not include what the object actually was. The examples of GE's portable ECG and the crowdsourcing of radiation information in Japan are both constraint models as well.

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Improv example #1

Some of my favorite constraint improv moments come from the 1995 movie, Apollo 13.

In this example, the engineers are confronted with new challenges – challenges that have not been simulated or considered previously – and are constrained by time, power, and various physical laws.

Such constraints, used with improvs or learning prompts, offer a number of benefits. They inevitably inspire increased creativity and a willingness to entertain non-traditional answers. This means that constraints actually help students consider important concepts in new ways.

Such constraint improvs also tend to be low-stakes activities that have no right answers, or at least none that are readily apparent. This inevitably makes participants more willing to share their ideas.

Here's another great example of a constraint improv from Apollo 13.

There are many types of constraint improvisations or models we can create for our courses with fantastic results. One I have used in the past, and which can be adapted easily across disciplines, is "A New Language in Twenty-Five Words."

In this improv, participants are asked to create a new language with the constraint that it may only consist of twenty-five words. These words can be used independently or in combinations, and should be selected carefully so the new language can express everything necessary for a new civilization. I normally have participants work in groups of two or three, and constrain their efforts further by limiting their time for creating the language to ten minutes.

This is a valuable constraint improv because it's an exercise in self-connection as well as an activity that promotes critical thinking about language. Participants learn a great deal about themselves and others through their choice of words. Some include gender references. Others feel that deity is critical. Still others focus on the inclusion of mathematical or measurement terms.

Over the years, used in a variety of different settings with different subject matters, this constraint improv has generated terrific network engagement for participants.

Improv example #2

A second type of improvisation I use for creating powerful learning experiences is the "addition" or "completion" improv. Addition improvs provide a question or an incomplete model, and ask participants to provide an answer or completion without constraint. Addition improvs are dependent on good models but are really effective for promoting creative thinking and, just as important, collaboration.

Here is a basic – and fun – example of a completion improv. Again, you'll be able to think of many variations of this that can be useful across the disciplines. I like this particular type of completion improv both because it's fun and because participants enjoy working together to complete it.

To set up this completion improv, I'm going to play a clip of a newscaster at an anchor desk who's talking to another news reporter on location. The first newscaster makes an attempt at casual banter but uses a word he thinks means one thing but actually means something completely different – and is mildly offensive to the reporter. The remote reporter is flustered by this and responds accordingly. We then see the newscaster at the anchor try to explain what he really meant. I have made this into a completion improv by removing the audio at a certain point in the conversation. The task for participants is to work in pairs and complete the dialogue between the two people.

In addition to modeling information for participation through improv activities, I've found it's really important to present information in ways that promote engagement and interaction. It's probably obvious from that statement that I'm not a big fan of relying too much on assigned readings for undergraduates – particularly in General Education courses. That's because reading static information presented in textbooks is extremely passive and isolating. It also generally occurs without a context that makes for strong student engagement.

Wherever it's possible, I recommend the use of "dialogues" as a vehicle for communicating information. By definition, dialogues represent an active discussion of information, one that's more dynamic than a traditional textual reading. The active nature of the dialogue form engages the reader and allows him or her to visualize him/herself as an actual participant.

Here is an example from an open course, The Power of Connections, I've been co-teaching this month with Stacy Zemke from the University of Oklahoma. In this dialogue, we're discussing how creating connections between learners and their communities is a foundation for student engagement. As you'll note, this dialogue is actually a dialogue within a dialogue, as it features interviews (more dialogues) as elaboration on the main dialogue. We added yet one more "meta" element to this particular dialogue – the NextThought platform. In this platform, dialogues are placed strategically for the course. The platform allows users to make comments and start their own dialogues about the conversations being presented. As you can see, this has incredible potential for changing the way participants engage with information, and it also promotes much greater relevance and personalization of the information.

Improv #3

A third technique I like to use for designing powerful and engaging learning experiences is the "artifact challenge." Simply put, this is a technique for encouraging student creativity and for promoting student agency in the learning process. A good artifact challenge provides a model of an activity you want participants to complete. The activity should provide:

1) Context, or why the challenge is relevant within the context of the course.

2) A personal model of the completed activity with a discussion about how it is relevant to you.

3) A prompt for participants with a clear set of instructions for what they are supposed to do, as well as "how" they can compete and share their challenge activity.

In our Power of Connections course, Stacy has created some wonderful artifact challenges. One of my favorites is her challenge to re-create my Web history or my personal computing history. The purpose of the activity in our course was to help participants see that learning connections begin with the individual and self-reflection. We need to know who we are and what motivates us before we are ready to make meaningful connections with others and new information.

Another important design element when it comes to student engagement is the overt promotion of community and collaboration. By this, I mean more than simply having students work through improv models in groups, or assigning discussion prompts.

Promoting community is about "opening up" the possibilities for connection and letting participants know that community is more than the class cohort.

We use a variety of tools for accomplishing this in our Power of Connections course. We take advantage of NextThought's community feature, which allows us to create a community that is not strictly tied to the course or course content. We also use community features outside the NextThought platform, such as Twitter chats and an Inoreader feed.

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As I bring this presentation to a close, allow me to highlight or reiterate a few important thoughts about building engaging learning experiences.

1) Modeling is key.

Because our students lack models for engagement or formal models for networked learning, it's extremely important that we provide those models and that we discuss them explicitly. Part of our work is to help students see the process of engagement.

2) Instructor participation is critical.

A big part of modeling engagement for students is our participating in engagement activities. Yes, this is extra work for us as teachers, but it is rewarding work and it helps develop our own networking skills. Promoting student engagement means adopting teaching models that are dynamic and open-ended. It means we will necessarily stop looking at our courses as finished constructs and see them, rather, as living and evolving systems. For me, it helps if I teach "out loud" and describe/discuss my processes and goals as I go along. Sometimes my plans work out and sometimes they don't. Sometimes I have to evolve in the moment and when I do, I talk out loud about that as well.

3) Find motivation in the real world.

We have to make information less abstract if we want students to engage. We have to bring it into the real world where it becomes relevant for students. There they can connect with it and make it their own.

4) Low-stakes situations with many right answers are important.

We want students to engage and become part of powerful learning experiences, so we need to provide them with low-stakes entry points where participation is comfortable and presents little-to-no risk. We need to design activities where there are many right answers – or no immediate right answers – so participants will feel less threatened. This will assist them to gain an understanding of the importance of process, of becoming better learners.

5) Instructors must become custodians and curators of connections.

Finally, if we want to encourage student engagement through centrifugal or networked learning, we must realize our role as instructors is to curate and facilitate network connections for students. This means helping them find affinities within their own class cohort and providing connections with past and future cohorts. It also means introducing them to information sources and to other networks of people in our related field.

I want to close by thanking the folks at ITLE again for inviting me to speak today. I also want to thank all of you for playing along with me and helping make this an engaging experience. If you have questions, please feel free to ask them now, or simply reach out to me directly via e-mail or Twitter.

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NextThought team
NextThought team

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