Reclaim Open Learning

better online learning for higher ed


September 21, 2013 by Claudia Caro Sullivan

Doug Ward, University of Kansas

Infomania, a collaborative hybrid class

I call what I do entrepreneurial learning. Others may call it connected learning or project-based learning. That certainly fits. But I want my students – most of them freshmen – to take charge of their learning and to turn their ideas into something tangible. They do that in a class called Infomania, which focuses on research, digital literacy, digital tools and digital humanities.

I have built the class on these questions: What is information? How do we find, analyze and synthesize information? How do we check information? How do we create new information? And how do we present information so that others can learn from it? Students create learning goals and then create projects to help them meet their goals. They curate information using such tools as Evernote, ScoopIt and Pinterest. They build websites using such tools as Wix, Weebly and WordPress. They post videos to YouTube and use Facebook groups for collaboration.

The class is a hybrid, and students work through online articles and videos I assign, including Power Searching with Google. They keep online journals in which they summarize, synthesize and reflect. In groups, they connect ideas using Popplet. We usually spend one day a week discussing readings and videos. On the other day, students meet in groups and develop their projects. I move among the groups and offer advice. Many students struggle with this format, and I have yet to find the right mix of guidance and freedom. In two semesters, though, student projects have exceeded my expectations.

Despite the hype about digital natives, I’ve found that many students shy away from technology. To help with that, I give them lists of tools for such things as finding specialty information (Google Scholar, PsycLine, Hoovers), curating information (Evernote, Diigo, ScoopIt), working with social media (Storify, TweetGrid) and creating data visualizations (ManyEyes, Piktochart). Several times during the semester, I ask them to try a tool from a list and write about it in their journals.

Similarly, with projects, I stipulate only that the form should fit the content and the audience. The group format helps take pressure off any one student to master a technology, and group members learn from one another as they research, create and build. Last semester, one group created a digital survival guide for freshmen. Another created an interactive map of study spaces. This summer, one group has designed a mobile app to promote health and fitness among students.

Perhaps the most surprising thing I’ve found in teaching this way is how much time I have to spend on “unlearning.” Most students are so used to an approach of “tell me what I need to know and I’ll tell it back to you” that they struggle with the chaos, self-pacing and uncertainty of my classroom. I’ve been working at providing better examples and better guidelines. I’m creating FAQs for each element of my class and I now have projects from previous classes to show. And after one group last semester hid its disarray and never fulfilled the promises of its project proposal, I’ve found that I need to have students show me their work earlier in the semester.

Perhaps the biggest question I have right now is how this style of learning helps (or not) students in future classes and in careers. We redesigned our curriculum last year, and Infomania is a requirement early in the curriculum. Others who teach the class use a much more traditional format, and I will be watching to see how students in those sections fare compared with the students I’ve had.

Additional Resources:
Projects from three groups, including the survival guide mentioned above:

Study stops project mentioned above:

Downtown guide created by two groups:—the-connection

Syllabus and grade contract:

An interview with Doug Ward, by the Institute for Digital Research in the Humanities:

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