Last week I gave a presentation on the project I did at Rotterdam University in the past year. While making the slides I realized that out of the five areas where we created results in that project (we dubbed them the ‘Big Five‘: authenticity, co-creation CoP as workform, skills and knowledge generation), two are actually very much connected: authenticity and co-creation.

Authenticity in this project meant creating authentic learning experiences, making it as real as possible for the students involved. By using real time information, by solving actual existing problems, by doing exercises that reflect the actual level of complexity involved, by doing things as they are done in the professional fields you are training the students for. And by providing the books and other resources ‘merely’ as information objects while doing all that.

Co-creation in this project meant giving not only the teacher, but also her colleagues, as well as the students and possibly people working in the field they train for, active roles in creating the learning experience.
Think of having students ‘roleplay’, work in project teams together, having them explain things to other students, have professionals available for interviews/conversations, etc.

Authenticity and Co-creation are symbiotic
From all the different things the teachers in this project did in changing their teaching modules, one thing to me is clear as a pattern: you can’t have authenticity without co-creation, and you can’t do co-creation without increasing authenticity.

Our ‘rebel’ logo during the project

Let’s describe a few examples from the Rotterdam project to explain what I mean, even though this is going to make this posting the longest I’ve written 😉

Databases course
Rimmert teaches a module on databases in the informatics department. Most of the students he taught (40-50 in total) already work as coders in IT next to their education. Instead of taking a book as the basis of his module, he decided to let the students create the course (co-creation) because he hoped it would then be closer to the problems they actually encounter in their work as well as address actual knowledge gaps they have (authenticity). Co-creation to get a more authentic learning experience.
So students created a list of topics they wanted to address in the course, and then divvied up those topics amongst themselves. In sub groups relevant info, knowledge, and example problems was gathered and then presented in class to the others. In a wiki all the used material was collected and bundled (for the participants of the next course to build on). Because there was no information or actual content to test the students knowledge reproduction on as exam, the exam consisted of doing an actual case in which all the material discussed needed to be applied. By choosing a co-creation approach Rimmert increased the authenticity of his course.

In the pub, and in discussion

Programming course
Rimmert also teaches programming. One of his issues is that most of his programming examples and test questions are contrived and over-simplified because otherwise there is no quick way of judging how well the students are doing. His teaching lacked authenticity, and he wanted to address that. Together with his colleagues he created a programming infrastructure/platform that completely resembles the way code is developed and committed in real software development, with the added possibility of being able as a teacher to see what steps individual people working in the platform had taken, and how code was eventually created. It allowed him to give the students real complex coding problems to work on (authenticity), while creating insight for himself into the whole coding process of his students without difficulty (the main reason for using simplified problems before). For the students this meant working in teams which added a layer to the learning experience (authenticity): the different roles of team members, team processes (ticketing for instance, or committing code), and the different snags teams run into during code development. In this way students were instrumental in creating the learning experience for their team members, as well as for themselves (co-creation), and each needed to play his part for real. There was no way around this, because grading was done on not just the results of the work, but predominantly of the process of the work being done.  By aiming for authenticity Rimmert ’caused’ a co-created learning experience.

City walks and Interviewing professionals
Jet teaches social pedagogy and orthopedagogy. Professionals in the field operate in disadvantaged neighbourhoods with lots of social problems. She found her first year students often had very unclear or unrealistic views of their chosen field of profession and wanted to address that by increasing the authenticity of the learning experience. Since years Jet organized city walks, where she would visit a neighborhood with her class, to point out the type of situations and contexts her students would be working in, and helping them to ‘read’ the social signs in these neighborhoods. She would take each of 7 classes on one such walk, usually picking one neighborhood. This time she asked her students to go out on their own in small groups with digital camera’s to take photos of things they thought relevant. The students would annotate these photos (‘why are they relevant?’) and share them on-line. By sending different groups out to different neighborhoods, Jet was now able to have the students cover most of the city of Rotterdam, broadening their scope of the city. Students not only shared photos with their class mates, but also with the 6 other classes. In parallel she had her students visit organizations they would typically end up working for and also video interview professionals there. This brought students into contact with their possible working environment, and have them ask questions to professionals in the field. The resulting videos were again shared with all students, resulting in a complete overview of possible working environments and professions for these students. Submerging the students into city neighborhoods and relevant organizations made the experience more authentic. Sharing the wealth of impressions between all students to reflect upon meant co-creating the experience. Another co-creation aspect was Jet asking the students beforehand what topics they would like to see addressed, what questions they had about their chosen field of profession. This to guide the students into looking at neighborhoods and organizations. Feedback of students was very good, to give one example: “When I started this year I had no clear picture of what this study was about. In a short time I now know so much more. Unbelievable really what we learned in just a few weeks.”

Working with Ernst on spotting emergent results

Covering Valuta Risks
Ron teaches a module on valuta options to cover the risks posed by having transactions in different currencies while the exchange rates between those currencies are dynamic (e.g. buying resources in Euro, selling part of your products in Dollar. What happens if the Dollar drops or rises between the time you set product price and you actually sell the product and get paid?).
Usually he spent most of his contact time with students explaining the data he based the exercises on and how students should go about doing those exercises. Ron aimed to intensify the learning experience and the quality of face to face time he had with the students. He created a series of short screencasts to explain all the ‘technical details’ of the course and put them on-line, so students could watch and repeat as much as they liked. He then added a few additional things he now had time for: he coupled the data he used to the actual exchange rates between Euro, Dollar and Pound, for the duration of the course, so all of a sudden real news events influencing the exchange rates became important for the students to track and hatch their bets. He worked with students from two different parts of financial management studies: one group to fill the role of financial officer at a company needing to cover valuta risks (and let them determine what % of risk they wanted or didn’t want to cover), and another group to play the role of the banks accepting and executing those valuta options of their ‘customers’. Following actual exchange rates, and having the roles of both banks and companies filled made for a much more authentic experience. At the same time the role playing part (and working in teams) meant co-creation as well. Another layer of co-creation was added by Ron explaining to the students the form of the course was an experiment to him as well, and asking for explicit feedback to help increase the quality. And finally Ron had much more time to discuss the material in depth with his students face to face.

Negotiating in different cultural settings
Maria teaches negotiation skills for cross-cultural situations. Students that complete the course continue their education in SE Asia for half a year, immediately after finishing the course. Therefore application of those skills is an important part of the course. Maria wanted to spend less time on the accompanying book, and more time on practicing and role playing. To do this she stopped lecturing based on the book. Instead she treated the book as information source for students and asked them in groups to present parts of the material to their fellow students, both using the book and using information sources from elsewhere. Presenting to their fellow students could take any shape: role playing games, acting scenes, showing relevant video footage found on-line with reflective discussion, etc. The exam for this course had been a problem in the past, as students were set to leave the country immediately after and the module being compulsory, failing the exam was a real logistical problem to all involved. In its new form the exam relied much heavier on an assessment during sessions in which the students needed to deal with actual negotiation cases in a role playing setting, as well as assessing what the student did during the course: continuous monitoring in place of having one point of measurement.
Maria changed the module working very closely together with two of her colleagues in parallel classes, and relied heavily on a much higher involvement of her students. Students outside of the class helped her create/collect alternative material as well as a website to put it in. A real co-creation effort, aimed at increasing the practical value of the module by making the contents more authentic. Both she and her students loved it (getting rid of the book as central element, and bringing the contents into the course themselves), even though she was sorry she couldn’t lecture as much anymore which she loves doing. ‘I started loving my students so much more’

Owning your learning path
In all 6 of these cases co-creation and authenticity worked together in lock-step. The starting point or aim might have been only one of them, but the other was always an important ingredient. The other projects the participants worked on were essentially no different. For me this is an important point: when you want to have a more authentic learning experience it means actively involving the learners in creating that learning experience. If you’re the learner it means actively owning your learning path, if you’re the teacher it means helping the learners own their learning paths, and see your work as a permanent learning path as well. There’s no way around it, I think.

Rotterdam University in the evening

One reaction on “Rotterdam University Learning Community: Authenticity and Co-Creation Go Together

  1. “continuous monitoring in place of having one point of measurement” – I wonder how central that is to your terrific insight, Ton. In each case, not just that 6th one, there’s a form of this going on.

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