Category: Teaching

Expeditionary Studies

I have been involved in developing a new initiative called University of Toronto Outdoors, which aims to bring together instructors, students, and community members interested in engaging forms of teaching and learning that we are calling expeditionary studies. This project is for those who teach and learn in courses and special programs across the University that focus on experiential activities, service learning, inquiry-based projects, and community collaboration.

Expeditionary Learning is an international movement that developed as a collaboration between the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Outward Bound, with the desire to create new educational models that engage students to think critically while taking active roles in their classrooms, communities, and natural environments. Expeditionary education unites intellectual and physical challenge in adventurous learning environments, creating classrooms out of city streets, virtual spaces, or wilderness areas.

Our most recent UTO project involved taking a group of students to Sikkim, in Northeast India, to study local histories and pilgrimage practices in the Himalaya. After visiting Buddhist monasteries in Darjeeling and Gangtok, including our project’s host monastery Lingdum, we traveled throughout West Sikkim to visit a series landscape features, such as caves, rocks and lakes, that are historically attested in Tibetan texts and that are present-day  pilgrimage sites for Sikkimese people.

Classical Tibetan Online

This year-long course is organized around a task-based language teaching (TBLT) model, with students moving through weekly modules focused on project-based tasks to be solved by the learning community as language skills develop. Students will begin by learning the Tibetan script, fundamentals of basic grammar and key vocabulary, and move on to reading and translating texts in Classical Tibetan. Project-based modules will also teach scaffolded contextual competencies relevant to producing scholarship in Religious Studies, History, or Linguistics using sources in Classical Tibetan, such as the histories and various forms of Tibetan writing, ethno-linguistic particularities of forms of Tibetan, and the wide range of resources available for advanced reading in Tibetan (i.e., dictionaries and other bibliographic resources, many of which are online). Beginning in the fall of 2016, the course will be delivered asynchronously, with synchronous communication provided for problem-solving group work. The instructor will be available for “office hours” or discussion at scheduled times.

By the end of the year, students will be able to:

  • Read out loud complex sentences in Classical Tibetan with accurate pronunciation and pauses indicating general comprehension of a sentence’s basic grammatical structure (even when not being sure of the precise meaning of the sentence).
  • Apply targeted strategies for deciphering the grammatical structure of a long, complex sentence and have a foundation of key vocabulary.
  • Find unfamiliar vocabulary in a range of specialised online and print Tibetan-English and Tibetan-Tibetan dictionaries.
  • Make an educated evaluation of the genre of writing displayed by a given text in Classical Tibetan, and know how to identify its author and other bibliographic information that may be available, using textual analysis and online Tibetan bibliographical tools.
  • Identify the basic structure and outline of a particular text in Classical Tibetan (without fully reading the text).
  • Translate a complex sentence from Classical Tibetan into English.

The course design draws on best practices in computer-assisted task-based language teaching (CATBLT) pedagogies. Research comparing CATBLT with traditional grammar-based instruction demonstrates that students learning language through goal-directed actions and projects consistently outperform those trained in more traditional models. The course is organized into modules that promote an ecological approach to language learning, with students engaging in relational, experiential activities in which they enact linguistically specialized tasks that are authentic to the work of a scholar using Classical Tibetan in “real world” research contexts. This approach is grounded in the “backwards design” process developed by Grant Wiggins (1998) to ensure authentic learning. This process emphasizes the instructor’s role as the designer of student learning processes, linking learning goals to corresponding assessments of student understanding, supported by effective, scaffolded learning activities.

Our selection of a CATBLT approach to this course is also based on the foundational design framework of the community of inquiry (COI) model, where learning activities and strategies are developed in balance across the three spheres of educational experience: social, cognitive and teaching presence. (Richardson, Arbaugh, Cleveland-Innes, Ice, Swan & Garrison, 2012). CATBLT course structures reflect a student centric design and are specifically organized to enhance authenticity and motivation in language learning, foster a community of learning and inquiry, and provide student choices and feedback (Lai & Li, 2011). Development of digital literacy is promoted from the course’s beginning, with extensive orientation materials and technical requirements and guidance on set-up, with links to ongoing supporting resources and communication tools (See Appendix 1). Materials and assignments will be organized into modules to support ease of access and progression of the student through sequenced and scaffolded learning activities. Modules will include (1) targeted vocabulary lists and quizzes; (2) one to three short video tutorials on grammar; (3) a video on contextual information (e.g., a lecture on how Tibetan is classified by historical linguists, a lecture on how to identify the parts of a text, a lecture on genres of Tibetan literature); (4) a problem set or assignment focused on the module’s topic(s), to be completed as a group project if desired by students; and (5) a second problem set or assignment to be submitted for evaluation and feedback (sometimes written, sometimes oral).

Course modules work with already deciphered (tagged) Classical Tibetan digital texts, with online exercises or worksheets for practice and testing. Source texts for these modules are provided by the Tibetan in Digital Communication project, which was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council in the UK (2012-2015). This project built a part-of-speech tagged corpus of Tibetan texts spanning the language’s entire history. In addition to the corpus, the project has developed a number of digital tools that allows for the corpus to be employed in many areas of humanities research, and enable other researchers to more easily develop their own corpora or software tools. Edward Garrett was the lead developer for this project and thus lends his expertise with the linguistic and computational research conducted in the UK to the current course.

The use of digital texts that have already been tagged with grammatical parts of speech allows us to mark word divisions, quotations, case markers, and so on, such that students can initially focus on reading the text rather than deciphering it. As they build confidence and facility (through worksheets, etc.) these aids will be minimized. This approach requires feeding tagged texts into the course engine. Drupal has been selected as an appropriate platform with which to develop these features. There is no other Tibetan language learning course that utilizes digitized and tagged Classical Tibetan texts in this way.

Mapping Buddhist Sites

Screen Shot 2015-05-30 at 3.20.20 PMMapping Buddhist Sites was run in a year-long Introduction to Buddhism course. Course development was sponsored by the U of T Arts & Science Student Experience Fund. Throughout this course, undergraduate Field Teams developed partnerships with diverse Toronto communities as they conducted research on Buddhist institutions and practices in the area. Students created a web portal for the study of these religious centres, integrating research papers, ethnographic studies, images and other media.

Students were divided into 22 Field Teams. Each Team visited a religious site in Toronto to gather the data to write a descriptive analysis of the site and its religious community. The field research project was placed online on the Mapping Buddhist Sites website. Each student in the class was a member of one Field Team and one Administrative Team (see below) related to the Project. The field research project involved:

  • Library research regarding the tradition’s history, beliefs, ethics, and practices
  • Observation of a religious practice or ritual in that tradition while visiting the tradition’s location in Toronto
  • At least one interview with a leader of this religious community regarding the physical site and the tradition’s beliefs, community, and practices and how they are related to one another.
  • Creation of an online presentation of the site and a presentation to the class at the year’s end.

Field Teams completed a Field Research Report and Presentation with six components. Some components were done as a group; others were done individually. This project overall was worth 60% of their final grade for the course, with the breakdown noted below. The six components are:

  • A 3-4 page (single-spaced) research paper outlining the tradition’s history, beliefs, ethics, and/or practices – to be done individually (10%)
  • A 2-3 page (single-spaced) descriptive analysis of the religious practice or ritual the group observed – to be done individually (10%)
  • An anonymous ethnographic research study of the site integrating all student research – to be prepared by the group (10%)
  • Annotated images, audio, and/or video from the site visit as possible, integrated with your profile in an online presentation – to be prepared by the group (10%)
  • Preparation of a Site Profile of the site for presentation on website – to be prepared by the group (5%)

At the end of the year, each Field Team gave a short presentation to the class on their experience with the assignment, prepared by the group (5%). At this time, one brief written summary report was also be due from each student describing his or her particular contributions to his or her Field Team and Admin Team (to be done individually); these reports had to be signed by at least four other Team members (10%).

In addition to being divided into Field Teams, students were also differently divided into Administrative Teams. Each of these teams had various responsibilities throughout the year, providing advice or assistance, evaluating others’ work, or writing short reports.

Ethics Board : Responsible for evaluating each Field Team’s research plan, submitting ethics approval request to Department for the Study of Religion, instructing class on ethics issues, creating a sample of an introductory letter for Field Teams to take to site visits.

Technical Team : Responsible for assisting classmates with techniques of HTML, image processing, video processing, and sound processing.

Design Team : Responsible for creating the design of the web presentations. May need to do some research into the principles of good web design and/or learn appropriate software.

Editorial Team : Responsible for editorial accuracy and standards on all webpages.

Taxonomy Team : Responsible for creating categories for classifying and displaying Buddhist sites of different types on the website.

Practicing Oral History

microphoneInspired by Digital Humanities models of working collaboratively on research projects uniting students and community members, Matt Price (History) and Frances Garrett (Study of Religion) taught two undergraduate courses in the fall of 2011 that engaged students in the practice of oral history using a range of new media technologies. The two courses were designed together and organized around the same set of assignments, although taught separately. Because the technically-oriented learning objectives for the courses were the same, the two instructors shared a course website and scheduled shared technical tutorials throughout the semester.

In both courses, students learned how to plan, record, edit and analyze an oral history conducted with a local community member, and prepare it for online presentation; they engaged in the hands-on practice of original research in history and religious studies; they gained practical skills in the collaborative use of various information technologies, including Zotero, Drupal, HTML, CSS and Javascript; and they learned and practiced skills in project planning and management, and in collaborative critical thinking, brainstorming, negotiation, delegation of tasks, and writing as part of a team. The final project of creating websites for their oral history projects required students to learn the basics of HTML, CSS, and a modest amount of Javascript. The learning curve was steep for all students, but they were excited about the oral history assignment and, with some hard work, mastered the technologies needed to complete their projects.

Read more about this teaching experiment.

Disposition: A Role-playing Game

Screen Shot 2015-05-30 at 8.21.51 AMThis Introduction to Buddhism course was designed around a year-long role playing game called Disposition. Students began the year assigned a character (e.g., scholar, ritualist, farmer, trader, doctor), and as a class we imagined ourselves to be living together in a Buddhist village in the Himalayas. Periodically events would occur in the village (hailstorm, epidemic illness, the visit of a religious figure, the building of a monastic library, New Year festivals, etc.) and students were asked to do research on how their character might realistically react to such events, and then write an essay in the voice of their character, posted on a blog. Some events required students to work together (e.g., to conduct a major protective ritual) and others were more solitary (e.g., going on pilgrimage or doing a meditation retreat in a cave).

While there were core readings to be done by all students in the class and to be discussed during lecture/discussion periods in class, students’ character development work was individually directed. I posted on the course website over 100 research resources (articles, book chapters, databases, videos) to support this individual research. Over the year, students were therefore able to develop their own individual interests as they developed their characters – doctors did extra research on ritual healing, for example, or scholar-nuns did extra research on women in Buddhism and monastic libraries.

Several major projects required students to work together, while drawing on their individual expertise. For example, after the October hailstorm caused a landslide that revealed some cliff-side caves, a group of students set out on an expedition to explore those caves; they found a cache of old texts and other artifacts, requiring expertise of scholars, artists, ritualists, and traders in the group. A doctor had accompanied them and was able to treat one of the students who was injured while climbing into the cave. In writing their reports on this expedition, each student wrote from his/her own character’s perspective about his/her role in the group and what happened overall. Returning to the village, then, in subsequent weeks the expedition group worked with a number of nuns living in the village nunnery to rebuild their library and augment their collection with texts found in the cave. Later in the year, one of the texts found in the cave was discovered (i.e., I announced that this was the case) to refer to a local protector deity for the village who was no longer being propitiated (hence the devastating hailstorm!), and so a group of students rebuilt the cairn for that deity and conducted necessary rituals (i.e., they did research on protector deity cairns and rituals and wrote about doing this in their blogs). Another text from the cave was discovered to be an important pilgrimage text, and toward the end of the year a number of student set off to do that pilgrimage.

In the second semester, students who wished to learn more about Buddhism in other regions of Asia (or other time periods) were able to go traveling to those places (or times, e.g. via dreams), do research on what they encountered there, and write their assigned blog entries as letters back to the village or as a travel diary (a genre that we had studied).

One pedagogical objective of this course design was to help students feel personally motivated to learn and to conduct independent research, and I would say that this was very successfully achieved. Over the year students became quite attached to their characters and felt increasingly motivated to learn how they might respond to what was happening in the village in a realistic way – and to do this, they had to spend time learning about the event type and how one might react to it. I would say that I have never before received student writing of such high quality, and I have never before seen such an impressive display of real learning in student writing.

When the earthquake struck Nepal in late April 2015, a student from my class posted on the still-active class Facebook page, “this happened right near our village!” – which I saw to be yet another example of how this year’s course design helped students personalize their learning about a remote region of Asia about which most of them had never previously given thought.

Disposition 2014–15

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