Final Capstone Project
Each blended course we have offered leads to a final project. Our objective is to provide students with the time and resources to apply their self-directed learning skills to a project of their choice. This practice was inspired by several experiences in developing a more student-centered classroom in music.
Several years ago, I worked with a colleague on creating a more student-centered classroom. He had created a course where students had complete freedom over the topic of their learning. The goal was to get students to explore technology without constraints. What do you want to know? How will you learn it? How can you prove that you have learned something of significance? How can you share your work so that others can build off of it?
My colleague had many success stories from his classes. Life changing experiences where education became fun and creative. At the same time, there was a large population that did not know how to function within this open learning structure. They were easily distracted, produced little to no work and in the end did not succeed in this format. It became apparent that in order for students to be self-directed and do it well, there had to be some structures in place that would provide for a gradual release into autonomy. Training needed to occur and guidelines needed to be implemented to help those with less self-directive skill.
Through my research and implementation, I have discovered the power of self-directed learning. No longer does a student have to sit through a dialogue on a concept they already understand. Students that need more time get it. Creating a degree of academic choice in lessons was increasing motivation. Differentiation and interdisciplinary connections were happening organically. I chose one semester to take half of a course and approach it in the manner that my colleague had done previously. I posed the same questions. Students were required to submit formal proposals for their study including timelines, resources, and final project summations of their work. Creating these proposals was a challenge for most. Many students had no experience is directing their own learning. I had to guide them in the problem-solving process and teach them how to break a challenge down into small pieces. Once our plan was in place the student work began and I served as a type of research assistant and guide to their learning. This was my first real journey into self-directed learning. The results were profound.
One student had really enjoyed my unit on the history and development of electronic music. He found the Singing Arc, a device that created light using an electrical arc between two carbon electrodes which often produced audible humming, hissing, or even howling sounds that could actually amplify recorded music. He wanted to build one. We had no experience with this and knew nothing about how to do so. Together we broke the problem down into manageable parts based on instinct. The research began.
We found electrical schematics for the device online but had no clue what the strange symbols meant on the page. The student took each symbol and researched them to create a table that served as a guide for each component. He learned about circuit boards and found an electrical engineer to give him some pointers. We found some funding and purchased the components and soon the student was soldering the components to the board. He went back to the engineer and put the final touches on his project and was ready to try it out. Due to the dangerous nature of the device, he set up a video camera in the engineer's lab and tested it under his guidance.
He ran a cd player through the device and sound magically occurred from this bolt of energy surging between the tow electrodes. The sound lasted no more than 10 seconds before the device fried itself. Success! Failure? It worked if only for a moment. How could this be? We knew nothing at the start, broke it down, found resources, and learned from people that came before us. Most importantly I saw myself for the first time as a professional learner, not the professional educator. I could see the difference. There was a joy in learning for both of us during this process. He knew what he wanted to learn, I knew how to learn and together we grew.
We had other interesting projects that term. One student really enjoyed composing music on the computer and decided to create songs that would potentially elicit different emotions from the listener. Could he make something sound angry, happy, mournful, etc.? He wrote 6 short songs and tested the class at the end of the project. He loved the process and continued to write music long after the class was over, composing an original score for our orchestra the following year. He is now in the Navy and continues to compose in his free time. Like my colleague, there were great successes however I too had student that produced poor results. Again, it came down to teaching students how to learn effectively. We have been feeding information and testing students for years. When you open the doors to Autonomy you will often hear "Just tell me what to do." The freedom is foreign.
My latest solution is to model this type of learning over time with the goal of gradually releasing students into a more self-directed learning environment. The units that I create in my courses provide a degree of choice whenever possible and encourage students to seek out the answers instead of memorizing content that I have fed to them. I attempt to get them to apply their learning into project-based work, which increased retention. As the unit progress, more and more freedom in the learning process occurs with the hope that students will begin to employ similar strategies as modeled in earlier units. By the conclusion of the course, they have complete freedom to explore a topic of their choice as long as it relates to the previous study.
The title of your Project:
Describe what you are planning to do for your final unit:
What aspects of the concept will you need to research?
How will the topic of your study push you beyond your current ability?
List the number of classes that you have available for this project. (Each student will be different based on their previous unit work)
Break your work down into small parts. What will be accomplished on each day remaining?
How will you document each step of your process? (I am looking to see how you learn independently)
What will be the final product of your learning? You need to develop a presentation, composition, or some artifact of your learning.
Remember... the process of your learning is actually more important to share than the product of your learning.
Each student will have a different amount of time-based on how timely they were during the earlier units of study. The advanced student who thrives in this type of format will enjoy a greater amount of time researching and creating at the end of the course. Students that are challenged by the learning system will be guided more carefully during their capstone project. Ultimately I am able to honor the advanced student while still provided appropriate instructional practice to those who may need it.
The true success of the final project is measured through the student's process. How well did they learn new material on their own? My belief is that these are skills that will truly make students lifelong learners in the arts.
Working within the blended learning structure has been an interesting journey for my colleagues and me. We began blending one course and testing out the delivery and collection systems. We surveyed students, changed tools and revised. Once comfortable with the results, we went heterogeneous and offered multiple courses at the same time in the same room. The culture of the classroom became quite different and at first, there was a feeling of loss. We felt that we were connecting less with our students. As the weeks continued, however, there was a shift. Our relationships and understandings of each individual student’s needs were becoming far more significant than the past. We were able to have the time to address specific questions. Our introverted students became more verbal in the environment and student productivity began to improve. The underachievers were quickly spotted and systems were put into place to help them achieve. The depth and quality of work improved and many students were able to go far beyond the curriculum path that we created for them. We have learned to pay closer attention to how students learn and manage their time and have inspired many students to engage in topics we once never dreamed of offering. Our time in front of the class has become much more meaningful and strategic.
As we move forward we plan to continue to improve upon our curriculum and find even more creative ways to share and experience content. We share our experience in hopes that there are other educators following a similar path, who may wish to brainstorm and collaborate on this form of instructional practice.