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The Hub’s “Small Changes: A Course Improvement Studio”: a history and reflection

For the second summer in a row I had the distinct pleasure to be part of our Small Changes: A Course Improvement Studio programming in the Hub. It was another success and I thought our blog readers might be interested in a reflection around faculty development programming. Additionally, this year we had some participants who wanted to blog as part of their experience and so I thought a context post outlining the program could help to support them. 

If you work for a CTL or other kind of teaching center (perhaps an innovation hub, or digital pedagogy group) you have likely heard of the “Course Design (or in some cases Redesign) Institute”. If you haven’t then just google “Course Design (or Redesign) Institute” and you will get a nice long list of various different center’s take on this faculty development staple. 

Last summer my colleague Belen Garcia and I were tasked with getting our summer course design institute up and ready. Like other centers, we have offered this in the past but similarly to offering a class a second or third time, materials always require some sprucing up. As we looked over the materials we had we felt like it was maybe time for something new.

Many of our faculty had redesigned their courses to an online format under the worst conditions during the height of the pandemic. In the years that followed they had to learn a ton of new pedagogical approaches and technology skills to keep up with a “new normal”. Much of this learning didn’t happen in a curated workshop, but in practice and on the fly. Plus, everyone was exhausted. 

We thought course design or redesign just felt daunting after all of that. We wanted to find a way to recognize that so many faculty members learned a lot about course design in these pandemic times through practice and recognize that this had value. Also, whole course design and redesign are a big lift. Maybe what they needed now were smaller changes to improve upon what they built during that big lift. 

We designers know a course is never perfect and that iteration and refinement is the key to making a basic course good, a good course better, and a better course great. What if instead of whole course design or redesign we focused on small improvements that could make a course better? And what if we did it in a practice and project based environment – like a studio!

This was the spark of the Small Changes: A Course Improvement Studio idea. We have all of the details spelled out in the full program description but this is a short overview of the basics:

  • 2 week intensive experience with estimated total work load of 25 to 40 hours 
  • 4 course improvement deliverables (new course content, design tweaks, assignment revision) decided on by each faculty participant and due by the end
  • 3 cohorts – teaching, cognitive, and social presences based on the Community of Inquiry (CoI) Framework. Each facilitated by an instructional designer. 
  • 1 Canvas site with a module for each cohort. The heart of which was 3 “deliverables suggestions” pages.
  • 4 work on your own days Mondays and Fridays, both weeks
  • 6 one hour synchronous Zoom meetings. Two per day Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. Morning of each week to check in about what you are going to work on and an afternoon check out to talk about how it went. 

A major idea of the experience was to expose the participants to cool and interesting approaches to good pedagogy and design, and to challenge them to figure out what their courses could benefit from the most. Each cohort’s Canvas module had a deliverables suggestions page filled with articles and resources, as well as ideas for how the articles and resources could be translated into a deliverable to improve their course. 

The three suggested deliverables pages were all different; customized by each instructional designer to align with the “presence” they were covering. We quickly realized that the CoI presences do not fit nicely into boxes (it is often represented as a Venn diagram afterall) but we decided to embrace this. Participants could stick to the suggestions in their cohort, go peruse other cohorts’ suggestions, or even head out on their own to find other resources if they wanted. The focus was course improvement overall but the cohort themes gave each group some focus. Instructional designers were always on hand to meet with anyone who was feeling stuck or just wanted to talk about what they were working on. 

We received deliverables such as new course blueprints, communication plans, welcome videos, visual and liquid syllabuses, new assignment plans, analysis of and updated course language to be more welcoming and inclusive, and more. Another option that we gave folks though was that if any of the resources resonated with them in such a way that it made them reflect on their teaching in a meaningful and important way that they could write about it as a kind of deliverable. Even though it is not a course object, we recognized that this kind of reflection could speak to deeper shifts in pedagogy that are perhaps internalized and seemed like a worthwhile outcome from the program. And, because writing for a public and external audience can enhance your writing, we offered to help them publish to the Hub Blog if they so desired. Over the next few weeks we plan to publish several of these reflections from the Small Changes: A Course Improvement Studio faculty participants, so stay tuned for more! After they are published you will be able to find them all on this page.

It has been a few weeks since the program ended and, like last year, it seems to have been a big success. We had an anonymous evaluation afterward and we got some good feedback. One consistently positive thing that we heard was how valuable the deliverables were. That this experience was about doing, building, and creating something rather than just about learning concepts or ideas. We hope that if you are a faculty member at University of Michigan–Dearborn that you will keep Small Changes in mind and consider participating next summer. And if you are a faculty developer from another institution, that this glimpse at a new approach to summer programming is useful to you in your own work. 

Featured Image Photo by Nik on Unsplash

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