Part 2: Content Curation and Student Choice

In this new post for the Indian Epics UnTextbook Report, I will try to sum up what it means to organize course readings that are driven by student choice, a system I am using in both of the Gen. Ed. Humanities classes that I teach, Myth-Folklore and Indian Epics. The goal is for students to explore readings that are of real value to them based on their personal interests and preferences. My role is no longer to decide on the readings for the whole class (i.e., the textbook) but instead to be a curator, selecting and presenting the reading options in a way that will help the students make good choices about what to read. That set of reading options is what I call "the UnTextbook."

Myth-Folklore UnTextbook

During the summer of 2014, I created an UnTextbook for my Myth-Folklore class, building 100 reading units arranged in 9 different modules (Classical, Biblical, Middle Eastern, Indian, Asian, African, Native American, British, European), resulting in literally trillions of possible combinations as the students choose their reading week by week. You can read about that project here: The UnTextbook: An OER Interview.

I completed this project on my own time and, because of the abundance of public domain reading materials I could draw on, I was able to complete this project without any funding support from my school.

An UnTextbook for Indian Epics Too!

I really wanted to do an UnTextbook for Indian Epics also, but it presented a lot of challenges that I did not face with the Myth-Folklore class:
  • the Ramayana and Mahabharata are completely unfamiliar to most of the students at the beginning of the course
  • both epics are big narratives that cannot be presented as week-long mix-and-match units (the approach used in Myth-Folklore)
  • overall, the reading load in this class is greater than in the Myth-Folklore class (appx. 50-100 pages per week)
  • the public domain materials are exciting, but many students would probably balk at reading only 19th- and early 20th-century materials
Despite those challenges, the success of the UnTextbook in Myth-Folklore made me determined to find a way to make this work. I decided that I could do this by using a mix of public domain materials online and books available for purchase in the Bookstore (the same books I had previously used as the required reading material).

But things got even better: Stacy Zemke of the OER office in the OU Libraries urged me to apply for a $2500 grant to purchase additional materials that students could access in the Library. This was amazing: I was able to buy books, comic books, graphic novels, Kindle books and audiobooks, plus a film, all of which would be available to my students based on their reading choices. I got that grant just in time to dedicate the summer to this project.

Summer 2015: All-Indian-Epics All-The-Time

So, over the summer, I worked on Indian Epics ALL THE TIME (here's a timeline). Most importantly, I created my own "Public Domain Editions" of the Ramayana and of the Mahabharata (complete with audio), drawing on different public domain texts to create an anthology approach to each epic. That was a huge project for me, but really exciting, and I am looking forward to improving both epics based on feedback I am getting from the students this year.

Then, as time allowed I also wrote up reading guides for the comic books and other reading materials, including some very detailed commentaries with links and images for students who wanted some extra guidance while they were reading. And that is just the beginning of what I want to do over the next couple of years; I love writing the detailed commentaries, and the students really use them, so it's just a matter of finding the time to write.

Anyway, thanks to great help from Stacy and her assistant Cody Taylor managing the ordering and cataloging of the Library materials, I was able to create a first version of the UnTextbook for students to browse and choose from in time for Fall 2015. You can get an overview of the content by looking at the students' reading choices for the Ramayana part of the class in Weeks 2-3 and Week 4, the Mahabharata part of the class in Weeks 5-6 and Week 7, and then the free reading in Weeks 9-14.

The results have been great: this was a class where many students struggled with the readings, especially with the Mahabharata. This semester, though, there is so much more engagement with both epics, and students are also exploring related topics like the Krishna legends and Buddhist storytelling traditions. Although it is still a difficult class (the topic is new, and there is a lot of reading), the difficulty is the good kind of difficulty, the type of challenge that can lead to real learning.

Trillions and Trillions of Textbooks

Just as with the Myth-Folklore UnTextbook, there is some amazing math at work here: the number of combinations is astronomical. Based on their interests and preferences, students can choose from literally trillions of reading paths.

Weeks 2-3: 2 choices (Ramayana)
Week 4: 101 choices (lots of comic book combinations!)
Weeks 5-6: 2 choices (Mahabharata)
Week 7: 539 choices (even more comic book combinations!)
Weeks 9-14: four thousand trillion trillion (really a LOT of comic book combinations)

And even if we just count "comic book" as an option (and not all the specific comic book combinations), then the numbers are still impressive: over 900 trillion combinations. Perhaps most importantly, even if students just limited themselves to the free public domain materials available online (which is what about half of the students in class have done), things still look really good: there are over 2 trillion combinations of the free online reading options.

Why Numbers Matter

I'll confess to being completely uninterested in Big Data (unless you mean... Big Data), but I am very interested in giving students a big range of choices. The power of those choices becomes apparent from the combinations: week after week the combinatorial math results in trillions of paths, a big number that does justice to the unknown (and unknowable) range of interests that my students could bring to the class each semester. Let's call the students' range of interests potentially infinite; that means I really do need trillions of combinations to try to keep up with them.

The downside of choices is the process of choice itself. I need to present these options in ways so that students are aware of all the options without being overwhelmed. This is a worthwhile challenge because, if I do this right, they will be learning about the subject matter through the act of choosing. So, just to take one possible example, if a student reads through the Krishna comic books page, looking at the blurbs to find one or two comic books to read, they also get a sense of what the range of Krishna legends is like.

In the next post, I'll write up a more detailed inventory of the ways in which I am presenting materials to students. I'm passionate about all these reading options (and the same goes for Myth-Folklore), which gives me the motivation to keep on experimenting and exploring. Even better: the enthusiasm might be infectious, as enthusiasm often is!

Indian Epics UnTextbook Report: Timeline (Part 1)

Although it's not the end of the semester yet, I wanted to start documenting my Indian Epics "UnTextbook" course redesign so that I could share these materials as part of our #OpenTeachingOU chat about curation coming up on Friday, Oct. 30. For additional posts on this topic, including subsequent parts of this report, see the IndiaUnTextbook label.

At the outset, I want to give a big thank you to Stacy Zemke and to Cody Taylor of the OER project in the OU Libraries for making all of this possible! When I first started thinking about redesigning my course materials, I didn't even think of applying for an OER grant since I really didn't want a textbook (OER or otherwise). Stacy, however, urged me to apply for a grant to try an "UnTextbook" experiment, and with the funds from that grant, I was able to go in directions I never would have dreamed possible!

For this post, I'll provide a timeline of major events.

Summer 2014: I made an UnTextbook for my Myth-Folklore class (see the UnTextbook).

Fall 2014: I supplemented the books for Indian Epics with the India-related materials in the Myth-Folklore UnTextbook.

December 2014: The moment of "Eureka!" when I realized I could do an UnTextbook for Indian Epics too.

January 2015. I started cataloging public domain books to solicit student feedback in the Spring semester.

April 2015. I saw the ACK comic books on sale ($399, free shipping) and bought a set for myself, and the Library also bought a set. You can see the unboxing in the Library! I started writing up ACK comic book guides in a new blog dedicated to the comic books; this process is ongoing.
As of October 2015: There are 100 weeks of comic book reading available (13 weeks have detailed commentaries).

May 2015. I started the Public Domain Edition of Ramayana, and we began the process of purchasing additional Library materials (print books, including graphic novels, ebooks, audiobooks, and one film). I also began cataloging the online and Library books and writing up Reading Guides; this process is ongoing.
As of October 2015: There are 244 weeks of reading available (19 weeks have detailed commentaries).

June 2015. I started the Public Domain Edition of the Mahabharata (finished in September), and I reorganized my Indian Epics Images blog and began adding new items.
As of October 2015: There are 299 Ramayana images, 311 Mahabharata images, and 118 other images, for a total of 728 images.

July 2015. I finished the PDE Ramayana and began adding audio with Soundcloud. I created a Diigo Library to help students in exploring and choosing what to read. I continued to catalog and write reading guides for the comic books and other reading materials.

August 2015. I reorganized the course wiki to reflect the new content choices, and the Fall semester students successfully started the Ramayana portion of the class with no problems. Students chose between the Narayan book and the PDE Ramayana, and many students using the PDE Ramayana remarked on how much they liked having the audio!

September 2015. I finished the PDE Marabharata and started adding audio (finished audio in October). Students successfully completed the Ramayana portion of the class and started the Mahabharata portion (Weeks 5-7). This was great: the Mahabharata is a much harder epic to read, but this new approach with students choosing from different reading options worked much better!

October 2015. I continued to add new reading materials, while students completed the Mahabharata portion of the class and began the free reading (Weeks 9-14).

Verdict so far: the experiment has gone even better than I expected overall! I would like to get more students to come to the Library to use the amazing materials there (so far I would guess fewer than half of the students have come to the Library to read there), but the students who are choosing instead to read public domain materials and/or to buy their own Kindle ebooks seem very happy with their choices.

Here is a randomizing widget for the comic book collection:

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Click refresh page for a random comic book, and click on the title to see the blog post for the comic book that grabs your attention.

Growth Mindset: Making Learning a Priority

This item is a cross-posting from my Growth Mindset Memes blog. To find out more, visit the blog: Pay attention and stretch your knowledge.

This growth cat is inspired by a quote from Carol Dweck's book Mindset: "Only people with a growth mindset paid close attention to information that could stretch their knowledge." The image comes from Cheezburger. I've written a short essay about this one which you can read below.

Pay attention and stretch your knowledge.

The context is a study that Carol Dweck conducted comparing people with traits of a fixed mindset to people with traits of a growth mindset, looking for how people respond to feedback about performance. This is an incredibly important topic for teachers and students, so I will quote that section of the book in full here. This is the kind of finding that reinforces my conviction that grading is one of the biggest problems with traditional schooling: by focusing only on right/wrong instead of feedback for growth, we reinforce the self-limiting habits of the fixed mindset.
You can even see the difference in people’s brain waves. People with both mindsets came into our brain-wave lab at Columbia. As they answered hard questions and got feedback, we were curious about when their brain waves would show them to be interested and attentive. 
People with a fixed mindset were only interested when the feedback reflected on their ability. Their brain waves showed them paying close attention when they were told whether their answers were right or wrong. But when they were presented with information that could help them learn, there was no sign of interest. Even when they’d gotten an answer wrong, they were not interested in learning what the right answer was.  
Only people with a growth mindset paid close attention to information that could stretch their knowledge. Only for them was learning a priority.
I'll compare Dweck's experiment to something that happened to me in my first semester of college teaching, something which was a revelation to me and which began my transformation as a writing teacher:

In the Fall of 1999, I was teaching what was for me a large Mythology class (50 students), and the students had turned in a short paper at the beginning of the semester; this was back when I taught in a classroom, before I started teaching online. I knew I could not write extensive comments on that many papers, but at the same time I was dismayed by the quality of the papers: some of the papers were very good but some of them were in pretty bad shape (it was my first class at the University of Oklahoma; previously I had been a graduate student instructor at UC Berkeley).

So, I didn't know what to do, but it seemed like a good opportunity for an experiment. I told the students that they could choose: I had graded the papers and would give them back with the grades on them but no comments, or I would write comments on the papers on the condition that the student then revise the paper — but not for a better grade; it would just be an opportunity to work on their writing in order to improve it.

In that class of 50 students, exactly one student asked me to put comments on the paper so that he could revise it. All the other students simply wanted to get the grade and move on. That little experiment showed me that the students really were focused on the grade and they had come to my class to get a grade; learning was not their primary goal, even though many of them really did need help with their writing and were surely aware of that fact.

Since my own goal really was to help students with their writing, I realized that I needed to do something dramatically different in my classes; to find out more about how I changed my teaching practice completely, see this post: The Shift from Teaching Content to ... Teaching Writers.