Capstone Project 2: Design Blueprint using the Learning Communities Framework

 

Part 1: Overview of Contextual Factors and the Topic Being Designed

Topic

The topic of this blueprint focuses on building and utilizing a learning community of current students and alumni of Northwestern University in Qatar (NU-Q). This learning community explores day-to-day decision making challenges faced by media  professionals (NU-Q alumni) and allows current students to avail of opportunities to learn from understanding and debating such challenges with the practitioners.

Context

Northwestern University was invited to create a branch campus in Qatar as part of Education City, an entity that offers top ranked programs from various higher educational institutions from around the world. Northwestern University has brought to Qatar two of their top-tier programs in journalism and communication and provides Bachelor of Science Degrees in:

  • Journalism from the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications

  • Media Industries and Technology (MIT) from the School of Communication

 

Students in the Journalism program are required to complete a 10-week residency with an established media outlet as part of their program. Students in the MIT program complete an internship during the same 10-weeks. During this residency/internship, students are also enrolled in two blended learning courses that support them during their experience:

  • Ethics for Media Professionals

  • Leadership for Media Professionals

 

Students spend the first 5 weeks of the semester on campus in their classes discussing case studies related to their topics while preparing for their residencies. The next 10 weeks of the semester are spent on the site of their residencies/internships where the students put into effect their learning from their current and previous courses. During their residencies/internships, students are connected with their instructors, their peers engaged in the same experience in other parts of the world, and NU-Q alumni who have undergone this experience and are currently professionals.

An important part of the 10-week program is the participation in a growing learning community that helps the students make the most out of their experiences. Students discuss challenges they face, or observe in the workplace, and bring questions back to the community to solve them using the collective knowledge. Not only do the students have the support of the instructors, but also their cohort engaged in a similar experience in different context. The alumni form an extremely important part of this community as they have undergone this experience during their undergraduate program. Moreover, the alumni are currently engaged in their own professional practices and therefore can provide guidance and support to the students by discussing their own experiences both in the internship and currently at their workplace.

Learners

The primary learners for this module are third year undergraduate NU-Q students who are completing their residency/internship at a media outlet as part of their curriculum. Students have completed a variety of content based courses that have helped develop their technical and communication skills that will be out to use during their residency. Students will also shadow professionals at their target institutions observing the various day-to-day challenges that media executives have to face in their professions.

As part of the learning community, NU-Q alumni are secondary learners for this module as they explore how to best mentor and support students with their challenges. Alumni have graduated from excellent journalism and communication programs at NU-Q and are currently employed in various distinguished media outlets all over the world. Their experiences range from working as part of a large multi-national media companies to starting and leading their own ventures.


Part 2: Design Components

Learning Goals

  • Students will understand how to best apply their technical and soft skills to decision making processes in the workplace.

  • Students will learn how to filter personal information and biases and present a challenge to a community to seek answers.

  • Students will appreciate the importance of a collective understanding and knowledge source in solving problems.

  • Alumni will learn how to provide mentor students and peers using constructive criticism and supportive feedback.

 

Learning Communities

For this blueprint, I use the Learning Communities framework discussed by Bielaczyc and Collins (1999), and incorporate characteristics of a learning culture as laid out by the authors. Below, I discuss some of the specific dimensions of the framework that helps support the learning community being discussed:

Goals of the community

The primary goal of the community is to foster a culture a learning (Bielaczyc & Collins) where all participants learn from the experiences of others and support each other using their own experiences. In this specific context, this goal is to help undergraduate students make the most of their residency/internship experience by providing them with external support to help them understand the decision making processes they observe in the workplace. While the students have prepared for this experience in the class discussing case studies, watching movies, reading literature, etc., the community provides them with a tool to gain a deeper understanding for their specific contexts. An additional goal of this community is to discuss and develop best practices that professionals in the media industries use for success in their workplace.

 

Learning Activities

The module incorporates three primary learning activities:

In-Class preparation

In the first 5 weeks of the semester, students going on their residencies/internships meet daily to prepare for their experiences. Beyond the logistical preparation, these meetings involve discussion of case studies picked out by the instructors, discussion of movies and TV shows related to transfer of classroom knowledge to the workplace, and learning how to use the tools that the students will use while on-site.

Weekly Journaling

All students on their residencies/internships are required to maintain a weekly log of their experiences during the 10 weeks of their on-site practice. This is an overview of the tasks assigned to them, challenges they face while completing their tasks and reflection of their experiences thus far. Other students enrolled in the class follow the journals of their peers and comment on them leading to a discussion, recommendations, grievances, etc. The instructors also follow the weekly journals and provide their insight and feedback on the experiences of the students.

Synchronous Discussion

The most important activity for the learning community takes place on the synchronous discussion platform that involved all the students, instructors of the class, and students who have previously taken the class and have graduated from the program. A Slack instance is created for the class and all the participants are invited to join. As a communication platform, Slack allows users to participate in public or private discussions. The public discussions can be further split by topic, time-frame, or any other metric deemed fit for the discussions. Over the course of the 15 weeks of the course, the Slack instance becomes a rich resource for all the involved parties and is available as a reference in the future.

Students are also invited to a weekly optional video conference that allows them access to other students and instructors. These weekly live meetings are recorded and are available to the students as a reference.

 

Teacher Roles and Power Relationships

The instructors play a primary role in the first five weeks as they provide scaffolding to the students as they prepare for their experiences in the field. In the next 10 weeks, the role of the instructor is primarily to organize and facilitate the discussions between the students, their peers, and the alumni, as suggested in the framework. They also take on the role of moderating discussions, while adding any thoughts and feedback as they see necessary.

The most important roles in the community are those of the students and the alumni as they interact with each other throughout the course of the field work. Alumni act as de-facto mentors having gone through the experience first hand and with the ability to relate to the students closely.

 

Resources

The primary resource available to the students is the collective knowledge and experience of the alumni combined with weekly journals of former students from previous courses. Additional resources are available to the students in the form of literature, case studies, movies, TV shows, etc. from the in class preparation module. Instructors are always available to the students in case of direction.

 

Discourse

An important part of the discourse the ability to weed out specific references to a project or a person being discussed. Since the students are required by contract to not discuss specific company policies or secrets, the discourse is required to be either anonymous or vague. This is true for students currently in the field as well as alumni, who will not reveal specifics in their current roles or their experiences as residents/interns.

The conversations that take place as part of the interactions become an important source of knowledge for participants as they apply their skills to their workplace. Not only does this help the students, even alumni often learn from these discourses to help them in their own practice, which serves as a motivation for their participation.
 

Reflection

As I support the development of a new curriculum at NU-Q, this blueprint served as an important exercise in thinking about how we could make the best use of a learning community for the best educational experience for our students. While the residencies and internships are currently a part of the curriculum, the idea of a learning community around is largely imaginative and a possible suggestion to the administrators.

The detailed framework provided by the authors played an important part in developing this module and simplified the specifics to be incorporated. I was not able to incorporate all the dimensions as there was significant overlap for this particular context and some dimensions were absorbed by the others. I appreciated the extra time on this module as the development of this blueprint was deceptively difficult. While I had the idea early on, thinking about the specifics took time owing to the variety of ways the framework could be put to use.

Unrelated to this blueprint -- I truly appreciate the feedback and the discussion around the other blueprints over the course of the semester from my peers and the positive feedback from Dr. Land. The LDT curriculum is indeed well thought through and I can personally see the results in my personal understanding of concepts and applying them to assignments, leading to successful transfer to my practice.

 

References

Bielaczyc, K., & Collins, A. (1999). Learning communities in classrooms: A reconceptualization of educational practice. Instructional-design theories and models: A new paradigm of instructional theory, 2, 269-292.