Jim Groom Unbound

There is a lot of good buzz in the edublogosphere about Jim Groom’s newly open course called “Digital Storytelling.” I’m not going to have time to participate this time around, so I really hope that he offers it again. But it’s already off to such an interesting start that I can’t resist commenting on it. Jim has been careful to credit other experimenters with Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs), which is fair and good, but without getting into a discussion about how much is original to him, I think the course is exemplary in a lot of ways, both as a relatively refined example of a new genre and as an educational experiment.

To begin with, as you can glean from the title, this is a course about new literacy. It’s about expressing ideas digitally. For example, one assignment in the class is to express a film in six frames. Here is one of Jim’s two examples from the assignment post:

This inspired one student to respond with his own suggested assignments, such as the following:

Make an animated gif from your favorite/least favorite movie capturing the essence of a key scene. Make sure the movement is minimal but essential.

(He footnotes the assignment suggestion with a link to a tutorial on how to create an animated GIF using free software.)

Brilliant. There is an art to creating assignments that teach structure and disciplinarity while simultaneously encouraging students to make meaning, and Jim has found it. His assignment is wide open in terms of content, inviting play, but provides a pretty focused aperture of form through which that creativity can be expressed. You would think that this approach would be a lot more common in college composition classes than it actually is. To be fair, it’s significantly harder and more time consuming to both generate and assess wide open expository writing assignments than it is with Jim’s tight little piece here, but that just brings me to another point. I would say that a course like Digital Storytelling should be part of every college’s core curriculum, but that doesn’t really go far enough. Rather, it should be integrated into existing classes. If students in Composition 101 had to construct their six-frame movie narratives before they tried to write their first five-paragraph essays, I suspect it would save a lot of pain for both teachers and students. When I taught eighth grade, I once had a student ask me, “Do you want us to write the paper like an essay, or do you want us to write it like we’re explaining something to you?” Sadly, a shocking percentage of eighth grade students manage to move on to ninth grade and get all the way to college without ever having anybody answer that question for them properly.

This is not to say that Jim’s course is all about creativity devoid of traditional academic underpinning. Here’s another of the early assignments:

Read Gardner Campbell’s short article titled “A Personal Cyberinfrastructure.”Additionally, you will need watch Professor Campbell’s presentation on the topic at the2009 Open Education Conference called “No More Digital Facelifts: Thinking the Unthinkable About Open Educational Experiences.”

The article and the presentation will serve as a theoretical and practical framework for the work we will be doing over the next 15 weeks, so please take the time to read and watch both carefully—and then blog your response. Tag this assignment “Assignment 1.”

One of the most exciting things about the course, really the spark that animates it and separates it from so much university teaching, is that it presents critique as a creative act rather than a bloodless dissection. I turned away from graduate school ambitions—twice—because the smell of formaldehyde makes me retch. And I’m a relatively academically inclined individual. For students who don’t have that tweed gene, having courses that enable them to experience the inherent creativity, humanism, and joy in intellectual exploration and clear communication is absolutely essential.

The trouble is, we have relatively few teachers who know how to teach this way and even fewer who know how to do so with digital tools. The two are intertwined, I think. We’ve managed to beat academic prose into submission. It can be a more engaging experience to read your car’s owner’s manual than to read a typical academic paper on a subject that genuinely interests you. But digital media have not yet been tamed by academia. They feel like art. And in our culture, art is ineffable. It’s a gift from God. It’s a light that either shines upon you or doesn’t. Above all, it’s impolite. Public displays of creativity are about as socially accepted of Public Displays of Affection, and for the same reason. It’s not polite to rub people’s noses in something that you have and they may never have.

Most of us are more vulnerable to this social construct than we might like to think. I consider myself to have a pretty healthy ego and be fairly intellectually adventurous, but I was intimidated when I saw this submission to Jim’s course by D’Arcy Norman:

I thought, “I could never do that. Not in a million years. I would look like an idiot in this class.” If you can’t face your fear of flying, then you can’t teach. You might be decent instructor, but you will never be a teacher. But that’s where we are, in part because we don’t generally make the distinction between instructing and teaching. Jim’s class, and others like it, are important for our students to take, but they’re even more important for our professors to take.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying I think the class looks great, I will be watching it with interest, and I hope to be able to take it at some point.

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About Michael Feldstein

Michael Feldstein is co-Publisher of e-Literate, co-Producer of e-Literate TV, and Partner in MindWires Consulting. For more information, see his profile page.
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8 Responses to Jim Groom Unbound

  1. Luke says:

    Your point about having assignments like what Jim’s rolling out integrated into other courses is really important. At Baruch College we’ve seen time and time again that having students make a digital essay or story about a topic they’re writing a more traditional research paper on, as a stage of their preparation, vastly improves the final “product.” It gives them a chance to see knowledge creation as a set of processes, not as a single linear transaction. It gives them another mode to approach and thus path towards reflection on a topic. And, importantly, because producing digital media rewards a finer focus out of the gate than does a blank page (even with the best-constructed and constricting assignment design), it can really help them hone in on what it means to make an argument or a statement.

    IMO, that’s the best use of the really creative stuff Jim is doing… as part of a some sort of broader, integrated curriculum or program. We can facilitate better learning if we make more open the processes by which knowledge is created. Digital stories, essays and the like are extremely helpful experiments to get students across the disciplines to deeply reflect on process.

  2. You would definitely NOT look like an idiot. And I didn’t know how to make that MAD MAN graphic mashup either, before I tried. That’s the whole point of the exercise.

  3. Pingback: New Open Course in Digital Storytelling – Ruminate

  4. Thanks, D’Arcy. My point is that these forms of expression tend to provoke strong reflexive fear of incompetence in a lot of people. I can get over mine; the issue for me at the moment is time.

  5. Oh, totally. I’m right there in the reflexive-fear thing. I’m hoping that by jumping in anway, and thrashing around in the open, it’ll maybe help make it less scary for others. Time’s an issue for me as well. I figure I’ll squeeze it in there somewhere, between the full time job, MSc thesis research, family, etc… 🙂

  6. “I turned away from graduate school ambitions—twice—because the smell of formaldehyde makes me retch.” Orozco, probably to the chagrin of his Dartmouth patrons, may have felt the same:

    http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/episodes/jose-clemente-orozco/paintings-by-orozco-gallery/84/attachment/orozco_gallery_10/

    -Luke

  7. Ooh, now that painting deserves to go in a Jim Groom blog post.

  8. Pingback: Ashamed to say… | abject learning

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