torsdag 10 februari 2011

Rich pictures and climate challenges

I have previously written about the Rich Pictures exercise that I held in my course on social media. I have now adapted, or perhaps returned to the original form and purpose of the exercise; to organize a one-off 3-hour exercise in the area of sustainability, environmental issues and climate challenges.

I have previously written about the evening course I took during the autumn. Some things were good about the course, some things less so. The social framework around the course did not work so well. I did not feel that course participants had good opportunities to get to know each other and develop relationships based on the ambiance and natural curiosity that people who have an interest in common (and are interested enough to take an evening course on that topic) harbor towards each other. That didn't matter (that much) to me as I took the course together with two friends of mine, but none of us did make a lot of new friends through the course even though I'm sure that there were people there that I would have liked to get to know better.

So, part of the purpose of the exercise was to let students in the new-but-similar course that runs during the spring term get to know each other better early in the course. There were several other purposes beyond this purpose of being an ice-breaker and social mixer, such as:

- a way to divide the class into groups without the hassle of course administrators themselves having to fine-tune the work and accomodate different participants' wishes.
- give the students an exercise with a lot of room for (own) creative thinking. Perhaps a few groups will even find new ways of thinking about a topic?
- a way to get "into" the topics covered by the course.
- realize the difficulties (and benefits) of working in a group and having to negotiate and find common ground.
- work with the (in the academic world often-forgotten) sensory and emotional dimension of climate challenges and with an added possibility of "touching" (affecting) participants in other ways than just intellectually, through reading a text or listening to a lecture.

So I suggested a Rich Pictures exercise in the beginning of the new course as, among other things, a way to kick-start the creation of a social structure around the course. I took care of all practical aspects of carrying through the exercise and I have to say the exercise turned out to be a success. The exercise lasted for three hours and I had divided the evening into five "acts":

- Act 1 - selecting a picture and negotiating with others in order to form groups around topics/themes.
- Act 2 - discussing the topic at hand and working with your new group to create a poster.
- Act 3 - presenting the poster and "voting" on you favorite poster (by placing small sticker directly on the poster).
- Act 4 - choosing a task that your new-formed group would work on throughout the term and in parallel to the course.
- Act 5 - filling out an evaluation form so that I would get feedback on the exercise.

I'm especially happy about some constraints we formulated for Act 1 above. All groups had to consist of three persons. All groups had to consist of both men and women. All groups had to consist of both students and "returning" students. And finally, you were not allowed to form a group that included someone that you knew from before the course started. Despite the exercise on the whole being a success, there were still a few things that could have been improved and the main two points are:

- With so many moving parts (acts 1-5 above) and groups leaving to work and returning for further instructions, I could have printed a time-table so that the groups would have known at what times be back in the classroom. As it was, participants were a little on the time we were supposed to reassemble and so we had to go around to check on the groups and also gently remind them that "they had 10 more minutes to work before meeting up in the classroom again"

- The biggest problem though was that I handed out an evaluation forms before they left, but it was done in a haphazard way; people filled it out quickly and handed it in before leaving for the evening. While the feedback on the whole was extremely positive, the actual text was very short, sometimes just summarizing what they thought in a few or even just one singe word ("Great!").
The problem is thus that I did not get a lot of input for my own planned study and for a future paper on the topic of rich pictures. I now realize I should have created a more protected space (in time and in space), for example by asking them to help put the furniture back and then sit down for a concluding summary of the evening. When seated, I could have walked around, personally handed out the evaluation form and stated that they should take their time to think about the questions and try to answer them carefully as a kind of personal service to me. Or we could have had a public "gripe session", a sort of group discussion about pros and cons of the exercise. This gripe session could have been precluded (or followed up) by an evaluation form, perhaps filled out during the following days over the Internet. This is something I need to think about a lot more before I do this exercise again (and discuss and calibrate with my future co-author in Manchester). Even the (current) questions themselves were pretty lame so I have to think a lot more about what I want to get out of the evaluation.

Since the students were positive about the exercise, I'm sure they could and would have provided me with better input to my study had I given them the chance. This was after all what I would get out of the exercise (except the experiences of having conducted it). This is really a crucial point too, as there is little incentive (for me) to do the exercise again from a scientific point of view if it doesn't yield any data that I can use in a future paper about all of this...

However, I did have a lunch meeting with the course administrators one week after the exercise and they were certainly happy enough to invite me to do it all again after the summer, when the next course (the one I took last term) starts again. I think I will do so but I then have to prepare the data collection part a lot better!

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