13. Authentic Learning

In this episode, Rebecca Mushtare discusses how she has used community-based learning and simulation projects to provide authentic learning experiences in her design courses.

Show Notes


John: Today, our guest is… Wait, there’s no one in the guest chair. Who’s our guest today?

Rebecca: It’s me! It’s me!

John: Oh, yeah. Okay. Today, our guest is Rebecca Mushtare, who will be talking about how she uses authentic learning techniques in some of her classes.
Today, our teas are:

Rebecca: Comfort and Joy.

John: Peppermint Bark. So we’ve got some holiday tea left over from the holidays. So when people talk about authentic learning, what do they mean?

Rebecca: It really means something, it’s like a real world problem of some sort, or where students are gaining experience as a professional or in something that’s very similar to a professional. A lot of times, authentic learning experiences include ill-structured problems. So not like the kind of question-and-answer things that we might have in a very structured classroom context, but where it gets messy. There’s variables that we can’t necessarily plan for in advance. That often happens and then a lot of times they’re also project-based exercises or experiments too.

John: So, one of the main reasons for using these authentic learning exercises, besides providing students with training that’s relevant for their field, it also provides them with learning experiences where there is quite a bit of intrinsic motivation, right?

Rebecca: Yeah, I think that students respond really positively to authentic learning experiences, because they can see how it’s relevant to them, and relevant to their professional careers. So even when I do small exercises in class, like writing an email as a professional, students latch on to that writing opportunity more so than other kinds of writing opportunities, because they understand that that’s important, relevant and necessary.

John: What types of activities have you used in your classes?

Rebecca: Well, at first it’s probably important to understand what kinds of classes I teach, to kind of get some context.

John: So, what types of classes have you used these in?

Rebecca: Yeah, so I predominantly teach studio- based classes, mostly web design courses. So, I’ll focus on those, because those are the ones of my regular load. So those are the things that I teach most frequently and I’ve done the most experimentation in. I do community-based learning or a form of service-learning, and I also do simulations, and it depends on whether it’s a beginning or an advanced class, which one I do. Community-based learning, or these service-learning, opportunities are generally working with a community client… generally a nonprofit organization, who doesn’t have the capacity or the budget to hire a professional design agency to do something. So we’re providing a service in a way that builds their capacity. In my advanced classes, I’ve done a lot of community-based learning. Locally, we’ve done the Children’s Museum of Oswego website, the Childrens’ Board of Oswego website and students are also wrapping up a project for the Oswego County Airport. So all of these are possibilities where they get to design a real website… they work as a team and I serve as the creative director, so this is different than an internship or other opportunity where they might get real-world experience because they’re getting a lot of coaching throughout the entire process, that they may or may not actually get in some of those other contexts like a volunteer or an intern.

John: When you serve as a creative director… could you provide a little bit more detail on that role for those of us who don’t work in those areas?

Rebecca: Yeah, it’s a step up from maybe a project manager and that I oversee all of the creative decisions, including what research methods are gonna be used to learn more about the audience, and the client… making sure that whatever meetings and things we have are all scheduled through me, so that I’m highly informed and participating in the project. It’s not something that students are doing without me being involved. It’s not an “outside-of-class assignment,” where they’re just doing a group project and they do whatever with the community and then show up and it gets done. Rather I’m heavily engaging with that community partner as well, and this is really important because of the longevity of the project. At some point the students are gonna go away. The semester ends… and the project may or may not be done. I either need to have another class that finishes up the project… I might finish it up…. or whatever needs to be done, I need to make sure that that continues, because the timeline of a client or community organization is quite different from our semester schedules. My involvement is really important in that role.

John: …and that helps with buy-in from the community partners, it provides assurance that the tests will actually be completed…

Rebecca: Right, and to actually to be able to do a project like this in a semester requires some significant planning on my part with a community partner in advance of the semester. So, I have to really understand their needs ahead of time to make sure that they are not far beyond what my students are capable of with my help. I also have to make sure that they know, as the community partner, what they’re gonna need to have ready so that the students can actually get to the part that they need to do. With web design something that most people don’t realize is that there’s a lot of writing content… and designers don’t write the content. The community partner or the client does. They need some coaching through that, and so I help facilitate some of that. Some of my scholarship as a professional is in that area where I’m working with these community partners, as a professional and as a consultant.

John: How much of the interaction with a partner is done by you, and how much is done by the students?

Rebecca: It’s a little both. At the beginning, well before the semester starts, I’m the one that makes contact with the community partner. We figure out how the semester is gonna be organized, establish roles and responsibilities, usually some sort of agreement. I usually make sure we negotiate some sort of copyright agreement that favor students using stuff in their portfolios, and set all those things up upfront, then we usually set a project launch date, and the client will come to campus. I make sure they’re available during my class time, and that they’re available pretty regularly through the semester and can come in a week’s notice, so they block out that time slot, so that they can come. So they come… I help the students prepare for that meeting. They ask questions… Q&A… so that the students learn about the community organization and what needs to happen. If it’s possible we usually schedule a trip to the community organizations, so we can see firsthand what they do, and so the students are interacting directly with a client in those circumstances… and then it depends what else needs to be done. So, for example, with the Oswego County Airport project that we’re finishing up, some of the students did some photography and things on the premise so they coordinated directly with a client to make arrangements for what time and that kind of thing. So sometimes it’s easier for them to do that communication, but largely if it’s about approvals and things like that, that all goes through me, which is in keeping with how it would be in a professional environment, where the creative director or an art director or someone above entry-level designers would be the ones having that contact.

John: From the students perspective, what are some of the benefits of this sort of project?

Rebecca: They’re really excited because they end up having portfolio work, which is important. They can put a line on the resume, essentially saying that they worked on a real project, that’s really being used, and then they also get to see an entire project all the way through. So in these cases, what we’re doing… community based learning or these community projects…they are able to participate in the research, development, design, the whole shebang, but usually they pick one rule that they do in depth which is something different than I would be able to do in other contexts. For example, someone might be the developer, or one of many developers, or someone might be a researcher primarily… even though they’re working on all the different parts of the project. So, they like the fact that they can do some work in depth. Usually in these classes I’m doing two big projects. So they’re doing this one and then they’re doing some sort of other individual project that complements it in some way.

John: So how much of this is done with teams of students working on the project and and how much of it is done by individual students working on individual components?

Rebecca: Well, the whole thing is usually a whole class project, which means that I really need to make sure that all the moving parts are working together and coordinating and what-have-you. We use Slack which is a team chat that we use outside of class to keep in contact about different things… and this last project we did something called “playbacks.” So, one day a week we did little playbacks about what everybody was doing and what they’re up to and what they needed from other individuals to keep the lines of communication open… and then certain roles and things are maybe small groups that need to work together to get particular pieces done.

John: You mentioned the portfolio piece for students. If they’re part of this big group, how do they identify the components that they worked on?

Rebecca: Yeah, we talked a lot about portfolio documentation, because working in a team is pretty standard protocol in the field that I’m in. What students do is they document the entire project, but they specify in that documentation what their role was… and so they always credit all the other people that worked on the project.

John: Excellent. What are some of the challenges that you face in working on an authentic learning project? ….with standard projects where you have a very finite well-structured problem, it’s fairly easy….well, at least you control the environment much more. When you’re working with someone in the community and you’re working with real-world development, what are some of the challenges unique to that type of framework?

Rebecca: Yeah, there’s many… [Laughter] One of the key issues is timeline. The timelines never match up, and so you always need to have a back-up plan for how something is gonna get finished… because it’s almost never totally finished during this semester. So, sometimes that means some people in the class are doing an independent study to finish stuff up…sometimes it means I’m gonna do something… sometimes it means another class is gonna pick up the pieces… or whatever… but that that needs to be in place, and that needs to be in place from the beginning. It’s really important for it to be in a learning environment that students can fail safely. They need to be able to screw up and that be okay.

John: It’s certainly safer for them to do that on this project than on their first job.

Rebecca: Right, exactly… and so you know part of my negotiations at the beginning of a project like this with a client is letting them clearly understand that this is a learning experience and learning comes first from my perspective, but that their needs will be met, but it might be met on a longer timeline than they really want.

John: …or perhaps a more iterative journey than they expected.

Rebecca: Yeah, exactly… and in most cases the community partner is more than happy to participate and especially because I always see the community partner as a co-teacher… they’re there to teach certain lessons, too – and that might mean letting us know that a student’s gonna fall flat… and letting them do that… and then help them figure out how to do it better next time… and give them that next time as part of the project. So, there’s been many times where some someone maybe provided a deliverable that wasn’t quite up to snuff and then deadlines had to shift so that that person could revise and meet the standard that needed to be met. So the students are generally working at a much higher level because essentially they can’t really fail. They can fail and revise… and revise… and revise, but eventually they get to a minimal standard… which I find to be helpful… and then the other thing is you really have to be flexible. All kinds of things happen… an organization’s budget can totally become a disaster and they have to refocus their attention on something else… and so you might feel abandoned.

John: While it’s the main focus of your class…

Rebecca: Yeah…

John: …it may not be the organization’s main focus.

Rebecca: Right. …like any of these things can happen without you expecting it even if you have you think all you have you have all your t’s crossed and i’s dotted at the beginning of the agreement. So that happens. Sometimes, students just don’t follow through in the way that you think that they’re going to or it or that you know they can… and so like what do you do in those situations? You kind of have to have those kind of failsafes in place. This is one of the reasons why, to provide an authentic learning experience for beginning students, I moved away from community-based learning. I used to do community-based learning in my beginning class. I do it now, but in a very different way than doing an actual website project, because there’s too much at stake there. So, I say that I save those experiences for my advanced students.

John: Going back to that… in your beginning classes what do you do differently to create the same sort of environment, but perhaps with a little less risk?

Rebecca: Yeah, I do two things. One that is a community-based project… and that’s what I call a consultation report. What they end up doing, in that respect, is, instead of doing a full design project for somebody, they do some of the research and analysis and do some proposals… some ideas… that we then hand over to the client that they can then use to either hire my advanced class or to hire a designer to take on but they understand more where they’re situated and so as part of that we do some accessibility testing… we do user testing… and things like that…. and so we’ve done that for a couple of different organizations, and that’s worked out pretty well. That gives students an opportunity to communicate with a client a bit and also do some formal presentations, which is nice…. and then the one that I use probably more frequently in my beginning class is a simulated client project. I have established a few scenarios that our clients… they have specific goals and needs… they have personas…. they have email addresses, etc…. and then students will work in small groups and then they communicate directly with the client all through written communication, although they can schedule an appointment…. I do have heads on popsicle sticks in which case they can meet with their puppets…. [laughter] which is always surprising to them because I don’t tell them upfront that I do that. So they come to my office and my door is always shut… for that situation I’ve reorganized my office. They knock on the door and there’s a head on a stick… and if they laugh I shut the door… and they have to start over. They have to take it seriously.

John: So, for the artificial clients, you create the email addresses and it will go to you?

Rebecca: Yup.

John: …and then you will respond as if in the role of the client.

Rebecca: Yeah, they each have a personality. So there’s four or five different clients. They all have very different personalities… and students start talking about their clients and the different kinds of ways that they behave. They have certain ways that they open and close their emails. One’s very curt and aggressive. One is very grandmotherly… very caring and kind.

John: Do you ever get them mixed up?

Rebecca: I have little notes when I start doing it that I keep on my laptop… a sticky note that just reminds me… a couple key words like who is who, so I don’t get confused.

John: Yes, that could cause some problems if you went from the very curt person to the grandmotherly person…

Rebecca: Yeah, and then if a student emails their client and they’re out of bounds or something then I email back as the professor from my school email address… and it says “This is a note from your professor” and then I indicate what’s wrong… and I make them redo it.

John: So, how do they react to the puppet?

Rebecca: They’re usually surprised but then they find it amusing… and they take it seriously… especially if I shut the door on them ‘cause they laughed at me… and they started over and I keep a straight face and whatever ‘cause you just know you never know who you’re gonna interact… and so the first time you meet someone you could be surprised, right?

John: It could be someone who’s a puppet.

Rebecca: It could be a puppet… you just never know… so, yeah, they generally respond pretty well to that… and usually if they meet with me in person as the client, then after that meeting I make them stay for a couple minutes and we just talk about how it went and things that they could have done differently.

John: Excellent. In an earlier podcast interview with Stephanie Pritchard, we talked about the Voices of Oswego Veterans project and that also seems to fit in as another type of authentic learning experience. Could you just recall that for people who may not have yet listened to that earlier podcast?

Rebecca: Sure. That project, in particular, The Voice of Oswego Veterans, was a collaboration between Stephanie Pritchard’s writing class, Peter Cardone’s photography class, two of Kelli DiRisio’s design classes, and my web design class. So, instead of doing my standard simulated client project with my beginning students, that group did the Voices of Oswego Veterans website. So that was somewhere between a simulation and a client because they didn’t have a direct client to talk to, but it was a real project and they had real content and real goals that they needed to meet… and that was taken really seriously by students and I think that was in part because it was going to be published. So, they didn’t get as much of the client interaction, which I think a lot of times the students value a lot from my classes, but it was still a very authentic experience and the students got a lot out of it and they were really committed to the goal of the project which was to dispel stereotypes about veterans. There’s a lot of assumptions that we identified early in the project… that people assumed that veterans are old… they associate it with World War II, and to think that “oh, wait, we have students on campus who are veterans, that just boggled some of their minds and we wanted to make sure that those students are seen as students as well.

John: How have students responded in general to the project?

Rebecca: I think, in general, students respond to any of these authentic learning experiences fairly positively. I think they all think it’s a lot of work, especially because the revision is taken a lot more seriously… and you think that that maybe wouldn’t be true of the simulation, but they get into it and they continue to revise and they want to meet and satisfy the client….that’s the goal at the end of the day. They need the thumbs-up from the client at the end… and so I think that is motivating and it seems realistic enough that they want to give it their all…. and that definitely is true on community projects. The one that we’re finishing up now, I have a student who graduated who’s finishing up a couple things that she couldn’t quite get to work the way she wanted to and she’s finishing that up right now

John: Okay, so I guess the next question is: “What are you going to do next?”

Rebecca: That’s a good question…. [Laughter] I should have known that was coming.

John: You usually ask that question.

Rebecca: Yeah, I know, right? So, I guess it’s only fair that it’s asked of me.
So, the next thing that I’m planning to do related to authentic learning is to emphasize thinking about audience empathy and stereotypes a little bit more. That Voices of Oswego Veterans project, I think, was particularly successful in helping students actively design to dispel certain stereotypes and I’ve really been trying to get students to think about audiences who are different from themselves… which is a challenge…. and that seem to work really well, so I’m trying to find a way to embed that more so in both my beginning and advanced classes.

John: Excellent. Well, thank you. This was an interesting discussion.

Rebecca: Thanks, John.

John: Looking forward to hearing more about it as the next semester progresses.