In our talk to the GVU Brown Bag a few weeks ago, one thing I mentioned was the amazing level of ownership that students in the OMS seem to have in the program. I’m basing this only on my perception, of course, but my experience with these students has been fantastic. Any college or program develops its reputation largely based on the students it generates: Georgia Tech’s strong reputation comes from decades of strong graduates reflecting well on the university. The OMS program is new and unproven, but the students appear ready to give it a great reputation.
But what do I mean by ownership? In some ways, it’s superficially obvious. OMS students have created their own communities surrounding the program; the Google+ and Facebook groups for the OMS are entirely student run, and we’ve started interacting with students in those communities simply because students developed them into great places to reach one another. From student-run resource sites to unofficial surveys on course and instructor quality, it’s remarkable to me how much OMS students are doing that has traditionally been the responsibility of staff. This is great for scale as well: if we want to grow the OMS program to far beyond its current size, we’re going to have to leverage the size of the community rather than traditional ways of supporting a growing student body.
But in administering a course, what was interesting to me is that ownership takes on a different form. The ownership I’ve seen in OMS students isn’t just over the program as a whole, but also over the pedagogy and teaching of at least our individual course. Students propose their own discussions, carrying them out over several weeks. Students bring articles, news stories, and research in from external sources separate from any suggestion by the instructor. Students introduce the ways in which their real-life experience helps them think about the material of the class; numerous times in our class, students commented with how their families or kids displayed principles we talk about throughout the course. All of this is self-driven: while we do create discussions on our own from time to time, the vast majority of the discussion in the class is student-initiated, student-maintained, and student-owned. On a personal level, I can say that when I advise other TAs to check Piazza multiple times a day, it’s not because it’s a chore: during the Fall semester, checking in on student discussions was earnestly the best part of most of my days.
So where does this come from? Without a doubt, it comes in part from the students themselves: they are a motivated, self-selected group of students with enormous industry and life experience. In my opinion, however, a lot of it comes from the unique affordances of the medium as well. In our Brown Bag talk, I recounted an event in our class where a student introduced a discussion topic that spun up into a conversation involving over 40 students and 10,000 words of well-thought out posts with no coaxing from the instructors. In an in-person class, it’s difficult for a student to propose these kinds of discussions: class time is limited, and online forums like Piazza tend to be seen as complements to in-person discussions rather than replacements for them. Online, however, time is relatively unlimited, conversations occur asynchronously, and discussions can splinter. In an online class, a forum like Piazza becomes the classroom rather than complementing a separate classroom, and because of this, the unique types of discussion it can facilitate shine through. Put simply, the structure of this online course allows students to take ownership of the course in a way that is difficult to do in person.
Of course, this requires a great deal of comfort and confidence on the part of the instructors. We must be willing to loosen the reigns a little bit and let students teach one another. We must be willing to let our classes develop into communities of practice rather than “sage on the stage” instruction. This can be intimidating: what do you do when a student in the class you’re teaching knows more about some of the material than you do? But by loosening our grip and allowing our classes to be communities more than isolated students, we can truly start to leverage the size and diverse backgrounds of our students.