For those who dream of a university with no exams, no too-large lectures to passive if not inattentive audiences, yes, the current ways of teaching are obsolete. Confronted with a changing environment in which technology upsets campuses’ bonding and bridging processes, teachers are confused about their future. Off campus events, social networks, and permanent connectivity may be opportunities to improve their working conditions and the effectiveness of their teaching; alternatively, if uncontrolled, this changing environment may become a threat to their self-esteem.
This is the very context in which the “Hy’ School project” was released in December 2012 (for a “high”, “hybrid”, and “hyper” campus). Designed by a group of professors from three departments (political science, management, and engineering) to accommodate the new needs of master’s and master’s + 1 students, its main aim was to turn existing processes upside down. It relied on flipped classrooms1 (or reverse classrooms); remote teaching (via videoconference); hybridization of learning processes that would combine e-learning, simulation games (to rehearse real-world negotiations with potential customers or partners), and sometimes personal development (drama, music, eloquence week, festivals). Student-teacher interaction passes through various channels, with less face-to-face meetings, and more opportunities to greet outsiders. Tutorials substitute for class attendance. Auditoriums only bring several groups of students together for special events (inauguration and graduation days; guest speakers; organizational work and planning sessions). On-line instantaneous debriefing and evaluation with follow-up measures is active from day one.
To reach these ends, five pillars were imagined, they are listed here in the very order in which they are depicted in graph 1, although to understand their interactions one must prioritize them differently: the tribune and the barometer; the platform, the fabric, and the studio – not to speak of the unavoidable control tower, an administrative division in charge of the whole process. It is of note that to be successful, such a project must rely equally on each pillar.
The Fabric. Let us start with the core of the system: this is the place where students work together in small multidisciplinary groups of 4 to 6 persons, some being far away and working online, or through videoconference systems. A modular open space office in a dedicated building is attributed to them at the beginning of each semester; they can make any material arrangements they like, and are free to decide on their schedule since the place is open 24 hours a day.
Their mission is to complete a report assigned to them by subscribers of the program, all known as members of a particular club, the Tribune. To this end, they will have sufficient discretion to combine a variety of tools at will. Their mandate stems from a real life cases (“cas vivants”) that Tribune’s subscribers must address (e.g. opening a new department, launching a MOOC, designing a CATI survey, shortening a bureaucratic process in a local public administration, reforming an organization or an NGO, campaigning for a political party, improving the efficiency of a governmental branch, evaluating a business model before it gets financed, selecting a humanitarian aid project, sending troops abroad, and so on).
Within the Fabric, students will assess the challenge to face, select the appropriate means to succeed, and turn to professors for guidance and support at various points in time (either during office hours; using interactive applications like Skype, Line, Google Hangouts, etc.; or intranet systems such as Moodle, Chamilo, etc.). Facts and worksheets, as well as any necessary data and documents will be posted on demand on these platforms. Once the contract between the School, the students at the core of a single group, and their Professor(s) is signed, the goal endorsed by academics, and the project approved by each partner, teachers just have to respond to student’s queries, feed the platform with appropriate materials, reframe the process whenever it is appropriate. In exchange, students commit themselves to reading any text or document posted by the professor(s). A supervisor belonging to the Division (see below) assesses and dispatches the related financial, credit, and time resources that will accrue to all participants, including those outsiders from whom money and orders come (a public administration, a private firm, an association, an academic group, etc.).
Students opt for a strategy, and then design their own agenda. Weekly tutorials help them stay on track, deepen their knowledge on specific aspects, and test their arguments. In order to improve their performance they may focus on drama, participate in public speaking competitions, and use any means to stay focused, control their fears, master their stress – dreams that come true within the Studio. The closer they come to achieving their ends and completing their report, the more supported they are by their professor(s) and their supervisor. Lagging behind schedule, conversely, means they will receive less attention from the teacher and less assistance from the supervisor. It may also imply that the “course” will not be credited or, still worse, that the end-user will pull out from the project, with the financial consequences that will impact the School.2
Of course, agenda, timetable, and self-organization of teamwork or lack of it, the possible division of labor or the absence of specialization – all these are left up to students. Counseling and coaching may help them avoid likely waste of time, possible inefficiency and redundancy, as well as temporary breakdowns. Here again, professors and supervisors matter. They may verbally encourage students, carefully review their mid semester achievements, give adequate advice all along the way, etc. They set the countdown and deadlines and help students meet them.
Once the report drafted, then reviewed, revised, and resubmitted to the professor(s), as in a peer review, the end-user rehearses their future defense behind closed doors. Selected attendees (the academic staff? Other students’ groups?) may all react and comment, suggest additional readings, experiments, or surveys, and give a grade.
This is what is now called a reverse class or a flipped class, with students preparing lectures and delivering them while professors listen. Evaluation comes from outsiders (they “buy” reports, ask for modifications, or express their disappointment, and reformulate their request for the next session).
The Platform. A prerequisite of this new teaching framework is the availability of various course materials needed to help students complete their work: selected textbooks, official documents, Internet links, articles and book chapters on the one hand; a high performance videoconference and Web 2.0 flux of connections with peers all over the world; software for modeling architectural or technical projects, simulating decision-making processes, and playing serious games.
Of course, the first component of this platform – a database accessible via an Intranet link – is now a classic: Moodle paved the way to similar stockpiling and interactive systems for data finding. Such websites have flourished in every single university over the globe. The novelty here is the tailored-to-the-needs aspect of this data tank, permanently filled and revised by professors – a lot of work for those who hoped that machines could be good substitutes for personalized advices and once and for all recommended reading lists updated from one year to the next! The corpus made available to each group of students may overlap with what other groups may need, but not necessarily so. Beyond the basics of each discipline (remember: teams are multidisciplinary), such welcome overlaps may occasionally happen, but nothing is certain when the class first meets.
The second component of the Platform is the Game Center. To experiment, simulate, and rehearse, students may pick out tools that are available to them, although this requires serious and constant monitoring to allow time slots, authorize the use of costly software, besides watching the discussions run on the Intranet. Students from the school of engineering, architecture, or medicine, may build prototypes and test them to give some guarantee that the real size project is workable.
The Studio. One of the most exciting innovations of this project is the invitation made to the students to improve their argumentative capabilities through crash training in rhetoric and body language: drama, opera, dance, public speaking – all these “arts” are henceforth added to “science” to boost the convincing impact of the projects presented to various audiences.
In collaboration with professors and supervisors, students also invite guest speakers, organize special events, and even request the planning of additional courses (such as summer schools), even though some may have little explicit relevance for their tasks.
The Barometer and the Tribune. To establish and consolidate the relationships with outside stakeholders –such as public administrations, research centers, think tanks, international organizations, and firms– among which sponsors, the press, and end-users, these two bodies are essential. Firstly, they collect yearly subscriptions, registrations for special events, grants and scholarships. Secondly, they give on-line and nearly “live” evaluations of actual progress, criticism, requests, and comments made by partners. Thirdly, they conduct periodical satisfaction surveys. Finally, they organize face-to-face meetings to which every registered person or institution may participate.
To put it briefly, the Barometer gives instant assessments of scores and deadlines, whereas the Tribune offers a unique place to make supply and demand meet, and give maximum visibility to private projects.
How does this work?
Suppose a regional authority of a developing country is assessing the feasibility of a participatory democracy experiment, modeled after the 2004 British Columbia one, with the particular purpose of training candidates and voters to play the game by the rules. The request is to devise the steps and the calendar required, design the appropriate framework, and also evaluate the costs and benefits expected as well as the risks taken. Once the “participatory democracy” team of professor(s), supervisor and monitors, as well as students of various origins is composed, it has access to a stock of data imagined for its special needs. Its members may test their ideas on a reduced sample of other students or outside volunteers who will simulate a public debate on any issue of the real life agenda; they may organize videoconferences with experts worldwide to collect their views and listen to their particular experience with participatory designs. They may reshape the architecture inherited from the 18th or 19th century to make it better suit the particular context in which the project will be implemented, imagining dedicated buildings, improving electronic votes, facilitating discussions with experts during the hearing sessions that will help participants to make up their mind about the technicalities of the problem raised, etc. This would require skills in various fields: communication technology; comparative politics with a special stress on the history of voting and/or the theory of democracy, and a good knowledge of possible assembly venues (from a local market to a national Parliament building). Psychology may also help students arguing sincerely, with no hidden agenda, and finding out the appropriate timing (coming to a close neither too early nor too late is of the essence when the legitimacy of a decision is at stake), as well as identifying possible allies to rally (and adversaries to block) before making a joint decision on the issue at stake. Since the project may be implemented in a developing country, anthropologists or specialists of the area are helpful. Because it has a cost, an economist may inform the group of the appropriate business model to make the experiment routine and sustainable in the long run, without further assistance or monitoring. Finally, students trained to address international organizations topics will be welcomed, because such schemes would inevitably be developed and followed up by one or several intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations.
When the semester starts, each team will identify its special needs, and organize its time schedule (an excellent opportunity to learn about scoreboards, logical frameworks, and grids that are extensively used in management). Supervisors will provide the resources. As said, professors will tutor the students once or twice a week, instead of teaching several hour-long classes in front of dozens of people who are more or less focused on his or her lecture. At some points, participants might feel underequipped to confront professional experts and “sell” them their work: support would be expected from the Studio, with its catalogue of on-demand performances and training sessions.
Day-by-day, progression towards completion to the satisfaction of all participants in a project will be watched out by the Barometer’s people; additional facilities and funding may be raised via the Tribune. Eventually, defense day brings together all the stakeholders in a single room (some via a videoconference system), and credits accrue to the team. In the end, semester-by-semester, students graduate from the program via the pedagogical Division, and their achievements are posted on the program’s website (once the embargo on the data collected is waived).
How to make the best use of this framework?
It is of note that teams may (should?) be competing on the same project – although resources available for the same purpose will be reduced. Awards could gratify the best projects, either among rival teams, or across students’ groups working on different projects at the same time. Moreover, professors will share the fate of their tutored students: evaluating their pedagogical achievements will no longer be necessary.
Within such a framework, innovators are awarded with symbolic as well as material benefits. Teaching is improved; the least involved soon emulate pioneers’ work. Autonomy grows because learners, teachers, and people who manage the support system are on an equal footing – and are paid accordingly. Relevance also increases, as partnerships multiply. Funding expands, due to the inclusion of outsiders at an early stage of research. Pedagogy and research are linked to an unknown extent.
Though this is not yet paradise, it very much resembles a brave new world. At the very least the professors’ nightmares (decline in academic authority, possible irrelevance of the field invested, lack of attractiveness, and lack of resources) will be bygones.
* The author wants to thank Sylvie Bianco (from the Grenoble School of Management, GEM, who also designed the graph), and Sylvie Humbert (from Grenoble Polytechnic, INP) for their contribution to this innovative teaching project. E-mail contact: email@example.com; webpage: http://yves-schemeil.sciencespo-grenoble.fr and http://global.grenoble-em.com.
1 What is the Flipped Classroom?
2 A problem that has many solutions, like increasing tuition fees, imposing compensation in such forms as working for the library, or offering the frustrated end-user another free trial with a different group of students.