At the Engineering Education in Sustainable Development (EESD) conference earlier this autumn (also the topic of my second blog post here), I was very much inspired by Paul Chan from Manchester University and his paper presentation "Imagining a sustainable future: The role of aesthetic knowledge in shaping emergent thinking of sustainable development". He had developed an exercise together with Christine Räisänen at Chalmers in Gothenburg that forced students to engage with and discuss the topic of sustainability in an innovative hands-on manner.
In their exercise (which they had done three or four times before they wrote the paper), they printed a limited set of pictures (around 75) several times over and placed several hundreds of pictures on the floor in a large lecture hall. The students' initial insecurity and skepticism gave way to enthusiasm and engagement when they walked around and picked among interesting, thought-provoking pictures. Their task after having selected an picture of their own, was to match their picture (and their conception of what that picture was about) with others' pictures and at the same time negotiate the (shared) meaning of their picture. Forming small groups and discussing themes and topics, they then went on to create posters which they later presented to each other.
I read Paul and Christine's paper after the conference, but even better was a lunch conversation-turned-consultation with both of them about how to adapt the exercise to my personal purposes - using it in my course on social media that I have held during the second half of the autumn.
I have thus used their "Rich pictures" exercise for the first time, but as apart from Paul, my students didn't have a few hours to prepare their posters but rather a month or so. We had a group formation exercise in the beginning of the course and the students eventually presented their results during the last week of the course - i.e. this past week. The exercise was a mixed success but I learned enough myself so as to be able to develop and pursue this exercise further and better next time around.
I early on formulated three different reasons/goals for using the exercise in my course:
- The course is taken by a very diverse group of students; Swedish students (1/3), students studying an international masters in media management (1/3) and "loose agents" - exchange students floating around in the European university system and perhaps studying for one or two semesters at KTH as exchange students. Some students know quite a few other students when they start the course but other students know no-one. The exercise is a group assignment and was thus a chance for (especially) "single" students to get to know new people and broaden their social networks. This is especially important for exchange students who might now know a huge number of Swedish students or even students from other countries than their own. The instructions for the group formation exercise were formulated in such a way that students could not form unilingual groups or groups with (only) friends of theirs. They could form groups with a friend, but not groups with only friends - so I effectively forced them to mix and get to know new persons. This was the social function of the exercise.
- The students who took the course last year had to work in groups and formulate social media-related "innovative business ideas" - but in the end I think many ideas were not especially innovative and neither was the format for presenting these business ideas in the classroom. I therefore wanted to shake things up a little and have students be more creative and innovative this year. Instead of just writing and presenting tired documents, this year's students presented their results in the form of posters. And instead of formulating business ideas, students now had hundreds of pictures that were goofy and strange to choose from and then had to make something out of them (see the three sample pictures below!). The common denominator was that all pictures depicted people (as apart from Paul's original set of pictures). In fact, I got hold of my pictures by searching on Google image search for different combinations of "strange", "people" and a third term that I varied. My hope was that by providing them with relatively "strange" pictures, and by being forced to find patterns between these pictures, the students would be able/forced to think more freely, to be more creative and to come up with more interesting ideas for social media services or tools. This concerned the creative function of the exercise.
- I hoped that by choosing a topic and by having students regularly meet with his/her group throughout the course (my suggestion was once per week), students might in fact (together) work through parts of the course contents. By having a focus (a target group and a need of theirs), my hope was that students might in fact connect and use the course contents (literature etc.) rather than just listen to lectures and read about social media. By having a task with a topic and a focus, perhaps part of the course contents would "stick" better? Since "Rich pictures" is a group exercise and the groups were supposed to meet regularly, it would in fact be enough if a single person in a group made a connection between course contents and the group project and then told other group members about it. This is the pedagogical function of the exercise.
So how did the exercise fare? It is difficult for me to know the social "impact" of the exercise (bullet 1 above). Did Swedish and foreign students (or foreign students from different countries) in fact mix? Were someone invited to someone else's party, met their friends, or, become a couple through the course? I don't know - but it might be enough to know that the exercise created the possibility for all of this (and more) to happen.
Were the results creative (bullet 2 above)? To some extent they really couldn't fail to be more creative than last year's (to a large extent) "vanilla" business ideas. I asked each group to provide me with a label directly after the group formation exercise a month ago and the 14 resulting groups were formulated around the following ideas/labels; creative people, identity play, be yourself, authenticity and anonymity, costume party, monsters, lone wolf, experiences, proud outsiders, Lady Gaga, fantasy, fashion, seniors and food. Most groups changed the name of their project and some great developments in terms of group names were "Partycipate" (ex-costume party), "Geniq" (ex-authenticity and anonymity), "Unic" (ex-be yourself) and "Nutriplanet" (ex-food).
I of course realize that the groups were limited, directed and supported by the kinds of pictures I provided them with, and this is something that I might think some more about in next year's exercises. Did the resulting posters turn out to be creative? Sure they were, but I still think a number of groups presented ideas for services that were not very goofy or whimsical, but rather quite predictable and mainstream. As I haven't read the accompanying documents yet (~5 pages/group), I haven't done a thorough evaluation of the project ideas yet - but I think many could have done far better. I have a distinct feeling some groups did not put much time into the exercise (it was not graded, it was just a matter of pass or fail). I for sure think that there were large differences in how much time different groups had spent on the exercise - but this is not something I expect ever to know very much about. I will however definitely look the instructions over and think some more about how to apply carrots and whips in order to force (encourage) the students to think outside of the box and perhaps also to raise the bar and the minimum amount of time you have to put into the exercise in order to pass. The sky really should be the limit in an exercise like this! Perhaps the results should be graded and have (some) impact on the grade from the course in order to encourage more work and better results?
Did course contents "stick" to students (bullet 3 above)? It is really difficult to say anything at all about this. I might form a more informed opinion after I have read the accompanying documents, or after the students have answered the course evaluation and written the home exam...?
So, what is your spontaneous reaction to the exercise? You are more than welcome to comment on this blog post!
All in all it was good fun! I took down notes and have a pretty good notion of a number of things I will improve in the exercise for next year's course. During the work of putting together the instructions for the exercise, I "consulted" some with Paul and at some point he casually suggested we should write a paper together for the next EESD conference (in Ukraine in 2012). I initially balked at the idea as EESD is a conference about bringing ideas of sustainability into the engineering education and my own version of the exercise had little to do with that. But not long afterwards I realized that I was indeed interested and that all I needed to do was to collect material that better mirrored the topic of the EESD conferences (e.g. sustainability).
Having come to that conclusion, I then quickly proceeded to offer my services to three other course (at KTH and Stockholm University) with a focus on sustainability. I have since been turned down (or put on hold) by one course and another course (to be given in the autumn 2011) has expressed interest but is not committed yet. In the third course though (with the slightly cumbersome name MJ1505, "Climate threats and climate strategies in today's and tomorrow's world") we have already decided to go ahead and use the exercise just two months from now when the course starts (in the end of January) and I already have a slot in the schedule for the course.
I will have to make a number of adaptions to the exercise, not the least in terms of what pictures to provide the students with, but I think it will be really fun to do the exercise again but this time with a focus on sustainability! Quite some work remains - not the least to consult some more with Paul and also to brainstorm what angle we are going for in our future EESD'12 paper. The answer to that question will also determine what material I (as a researcher) will collect when I lead the "rich pictures + sustainability" exercise in the end of January. I will most probably get back two months from now with a new post on rich pictures.
The next exercise will be "one-shot" - not a task the students will work with in parallel to the course and during a longer period of time, but rather just a self-contained three hour long exercise that will be finished when the evening is over.
Here is a sample of three out of the three hundred (!) pictures "my" social media students could choose from: