Creating an Innovative Classroom Experience

Oct 1st, 2013 | By | Category: Spotlight


In the world of higher education, the term MOOC—massive open online courses—continues to gain attention as colleges develop courses that educate thousands of students simultaneously and, in most cases, free of charge.

An experienced filmmaker and media producer, Dr. Michael Savoie, professor of mass media and interim dean of the Honors College, became interested in the process and challenges associated with developing a MOOC.

As part of a class project, Savoie wanted college students to develop a MOOC that would focus on providing remedial assistance in reading and math to high school seniors.

Savoie enlisted assistance from mass media instructor Talley Mulligan to help him develop an interactive class that challenged students to embrace teamwork and the power of collaborative intellect.

“I was working with our eLearning group and thought this would be a great way to engage honor students in a service learning project and to develop something new and innovative,” said Savoie. “Talley is an experienced interactive media designer and had a great deal of professional experience before arriving at VSU.”

The primary objective was to bring students together with the initial idea—create a MOOC—and then provide the opportunity for them to develop the process and move the project forward. It was the process that allowed students to experience real-world work challenges associated with project management.

Students in Mulligan’s mass media digital design course joined students enrolled in Savoie’s honors capstone course. Combining two diverse college courses required some flexibility from the instructors and students.

Mulligan, who arrived at Valdosta State in 2012, said students from the mass media and honors classes were divided into either a math or reading group.

“Basically, the honors students were asked to focus on the pedagogy and the media students were charged with creating the media assets and framework or site that would be the delivery container, if you will,” said Mulligan, who, before arriving at VSU, worked for Sun Microsystem’s Information Products Group, social file sharing start-up AllPeers, and various interactive design firms in Europe. “As our students eventually figured out, the reality is that instructional design of this nature requires that everyone—content, technology, and design specialists—collaborate, and this requires ongoing, effective communication.”

Savoie said the process was both challenging and frustrating to many of the students who were strongly oriented to individual work.

“The experience was strong and rewarding,” Savoie said. “In a more retrospective view, the students saw the benefits and connected with the experience. It needed to be guided by Talley and I as there was great frustration developing a project with no template or roadmap.”

Mulligan said the project provided useful learning experiences and the students benefited from a “hands-on” class approach.

“From my point of view, the highlights were that students were able to get a taste of the sort of ambiguous challenges—team communication and politics, setting expectations, tracking of details, issue prioritization, etc.—that typify what awaits those of them that make the cut,” said Mulligan. “I also enjoyed experimenting with allowing students more agency in crafting their learning experience, but the experience has definitely caused me to revisit how to scaffold such learning opportunities appropriately in the future.”

Developing Critical Thinking and Communication Skills

Mass media student Kyle Rizal Buckingham said the class provided him with real world work experience.

“Instead of just lecturing, they [Savoie and Mulligan] wanted to actually give us a project like the real-world,” said Buckingham. “I think I benefited the most from work on the project team, going through and putting the pieces together into one project…also the stress that comes with working with a team. Some of the people did not want to work with others, and I think it was probably the most valuable experience I have had my entire college career.”

Buckingham enjoyed Savoie and Mulligan’s unique teaching style.

“No boundaries…it was as if they were not even instructors and more like team members like us,” said Buckingham, who plans to graduate in 2014. “They were trying to work with us. I enjoyed that, and I liked not having to look up to a higher seed of power to tell me what to do and what to read.”

Felina Duncan, a student within the Honors College, said she did not know what to expect at the start of the class.

“I really appreciated that we started with nothing and learned the process of how to build a project,” said Duncan, who is scheduled to graduate in 2014 with a degree in international business. “We got the content, but then realized we could not use the problems from the textbooks. We had to create our own.”

Duncan also appreciated the non-lecture style of the class.

“I did not think I would learn a lot from this because it is not as structured, but I really think I did,” she said. “Being able to work on a project for the entire semester, it was a different way of learning…and I feel like I learned a lot from it.”

Blending Course Instruction

Savoie and Mulligan agree that they benefited from the innovative class structure and co-teaching format.

“Talley and I met before the semester to establish the project guidelines, but we learned that there were many issues that needed to be addressed throughout the development of the project,” said Savoie. “As this was a totally new approach, there were many interesting and surprising developments.”

Combining teaching skills and experience was at the forefront of the blended teaching format.

“In a team-teaching environment, you must consider the other professor and be sensitive to that person’s autonomy and experience,” said Savoie, who recently completed his doctorate in education. “Talley was a great partner, and we found that our better qualities balanced our approach. It was important to focus on what we individually do best and allow that person to move forward.”

Mulligan agrees that the opportunity to co-teach with Savoie was extremely beneficial to him professionally.

“It was incredibly instructive, but it actually required a lot more work of us, which was a bit of a surprise,” said Mulligan. “I cannot overstate how useful regular substantive discussions about the challenges faced in the classroom are for beginning professors.”

Savoie said, in review of the learning outcomes for the class, a functional MOOC was not listed.

“The outcomes related directly to the experience and understanding of the process, including teamwork, technology integration in education, media design, and curriculum,” Savoie said. “Given that the objectives were met, I feel that it was a worthwhile learning experience. I would have liked to execute a successful prototype, but this will be an ongoing project.”

What is a MOOC?

 According to “What You Need to Know About MOOCs,” Chronicle of Higher Education: “MOOCs are classes that are taught online to large numbers of students, with minimal involvement by professors. Typically, students watch short video lectures and complete assignments that are graded either by machines or by other students. That way a lone professor can support a class with hundreds of thousands of participants.”