Organizing University Learning: Moving Beyond the Course to Micro-labs

University learning is centered on the course. A pattern for learning familiar to any current or past student. Students and teacher meet 1-3 times per week for 8-12 weeks. There’s lectures, readings, papers, projects, quizzes, and tests.

This, by and large, is an adequate pattern for many learning purposes. But no rational person would suggest this is the only workable solution or even what’s best, or adequate, for all purposes.

There have been many alternative models proposed. One model I’ve taken a liking to was described in a recent journal article by Ann Pendleton-Jullian titled, Design Education and Innovation Ecotones.

Over the next couple of weeks I’ll be recycling material from a paper that Tim Olsen and I wrote this past summer (which was rejected for publication sadly — but luckily we have our own worldwide publication systems we can use as a fall-back :) on the micro-labs concept and our experience running and participating in class that used similar concepts.

Micro Labs

Micro-labs are small learning communities centered around answering a question, not mastering standardized content/skills

Micro-labs are a proposed university course architecture which supports and incorporates “web 2.0” informal learning principles, enabling students to entirely create their own curriculum with the goal of contributing all objects created by learning back to a learning community of practice, and an Internet audience. This course design seeks to harness both the student’s natural (intrinsic) desire to learn and the ease of access to knowledge created by advances in communication technologies.

Micro-labs may be contrasted with a normal lab, which are found at most universities. Labs are large expensive operations that might take years to set-up and are expected to run for many years. Micro-labs, by contrast, are quick to set-up and cheap to run with as few as 2-3 students and a faculty adviser who meet in the Library. Many small, tightly networked micro-labs would collectively create an impact far beyond a few larger labs.

[these micro-labs are] easier and quicker than large centers to plan, build and reconfigure as projects shift and move in other directions, they facilitate grassroots creative research. These highly networked micro labs, focused on topics of deep inquiry, need not have dozens of participants sitting in the same room. A team of participants with the necessary skills might be distributed among several institutions, several countries, networked digitally and through ongoing academic relationships…Because they are networked, a single micro-lab’s reach extends beyond the team itself or the duration of a specific project. When the opportunity arises, these micro-labs can coalesce into one larger lab with tremendous diversity and richness of talent. Breaking apart again, they may redistribute talent and resources. Analogous to the way ‘process networks’ mobilize highly specialized small companies across an extended integrated design and manufacturing process, a network of micro-labs creates a horizontal rhizomic structure in which the whole is much greater than the sum of the parts. The networked micro-lab can adapt to new questions and opportunities from outside as well as inside the network. (Pendleton-Jullian, 2009)

Micro-labs are a simple and efficient mechanism for providing students informal learning opportunities in niches of their choices.

In a micro-labs course, student teams outline a plan of study and learning deliverables with the help of an instructor. Each study is completed over the period of 2-6 weeks. Coached by an instructor, students utilize any content they wish, including Open Educational Resources, to learn material in an authentic learning environment (Herrington & Oliver, 2000). The learning outcomes consist of deliverables, which are typically given to the community, including blog posts, tutorials, software tools, and conference presentations.

Micro-labs courses promise many benefits. In some universities 50 percent of enrollment is concentrated in only 25 of the largest classes (Graham & Stacey, 2002). This suggests the high financial cost of serving students in smaller niche classes, which can be reduced through the use of micro-labs courses as one teacher can coach significantly more student-led learning teams and less building resources are needed. Self-adaptive learning benefits students as they are able to learn the material in the manner, and with the resources of their choice. Students are also able to learn from and contribute to a community of practice in which they may later be employed. In addition, micro-labs courses better prepare students for today’s highly competitive and rapidly changing workplace, as they develop experience in directing their own learning.

Micro-labs as a Class

A normal class defines both the required learning outcomes and the required inputs (the homework, projects, group assignments etc.) that students must experience in order to (hopefully) arrive at the required outcomes. In other words, the professor decides, not only what the students should learn but also how they should learn.

This factory model for education is growing increasingly untenable as the world grows more complex. Today’s students graduate into a world of far greater uncertainty and far greater diversity as the formerly monolithic landscape dominated by a few large companies grows increasing fragmented and diversified. Our universities must help prepare students for many more types of career paths.

The core idea is that micro-lab classes adapts to its learners instead of requiring its learners to adapt to the class. This is the central idea of many web 2.0 applications. Services such as Twitter and Flickr provide simple mechanisms that users can apply to meet a large number of needs. In a similar way, the micro-lab course provides an architecture for students to build learning communities and use learning objects of their choosing.

Another model that’s helpful in understanding micro-lab classes is supply-push vs. demand-pull. Supply-push describes the traditional curriculum model, where faculty plan their courses to push knowledge to students through means such as textbooks or lectures. Demand-pull describes the type of learning typically done by extracurricular learners. For example, a person desiring more knowledge (demand) about RFID tags might search the Internet and pull information from various web pages.

A micro-lab class is a demand-pull not supply-push type class. Students decide what they want to learn and pull in content as needed and ask questions to different learning communities as needed. Supply-push models work best when resources are scarce, such as when professors are the sole source of information. Demand-pull models seem best when resources are abundant. Today’s Internet provides a tidal wave of information that learners can access.

Brown and Adler state:

The demand-pull approach is based on providing students with access to rich (sometimes virtual) learning communities built around a practice. It is passion-based learning, motivated by the student either wanting to become a member of a particular community of practice or just wanting to learn about, make, or perform something. Often the learning that transpires is informal rather than formally conducted in a structured setting. Learning occurs in part through a form of reflective practicum, but in this case the reflection comes from being embedded in a community of practice that may be supported by both a physical and a virtual presence and by collaboration between newcomers and professional practitioners/scholars.

In my next post, I’ll describe a micro-lab class we ran at BYU.

Posted October 21, 2009

Kyle Mathews lives and works in San Francisco building beautiful things. You should follow him on Twitter

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