A project-based learning experiment in feminist pedagogy

This post documents a conference presentation on project-based learning (PBL) as implemented in a course on gender, race, and science, co-taught four times for the Boston-area Graduate Consortium on Women’s Studies. Evaluations of the course document a tension between initial discomfort and subsequent appreciation: “you might think you aren’t sufficiently grounded by the course [but] being on the other side of it now, I see it works out beautifully.” (read more…)

Online platforms: Learning as one goes vs. polished & stable appearance

Recently I posted the following on a course blog (which is a new feature I’m experimenting with this semester):

You will notice that the appearance of the blog has changed and might wonder: Why didn’t the instructors get feedback before going live so the appearance of the online materials could be polished and then stable once the course started?–After all, there are enough “rooms” to explore in the “house” of the online materials without risking having any student feeling that they were in a different house from the one they entered the day before.

Along the same lines of completing the “beta” stage of design and development before the class started, you heard me during class admit that some aspects of the course wiki.. weren’t strictly necessary and some (e.g., a lack of a sidebar menu) were holdovers from the past or compromises so we could use a platform not requiring my university’s login…

Let me reflect on this line of inquiry or critique:

  • One reason for not having everything polished in advance and stable through the semester is lack of time–both for development and for walking through the online materials and seeing the issues above (and others) in advance.  Even if I were to bring out the violins and describe the challenges of working at a public university in times of declining budgets, you would still be entitled to ask: Why take on a time-consuming role if you don’t have time to do things properly?
  • “Doing things properly” is a contestable concept when it comes to online platforms. I avoid the predefined proprietary platforms, such as Blackboard, for many reasons–a) Proprietary platforms suck huge amounts of money away from other university teaching-related budget items and offer little more (often less) than widely available, low-cost online platforms (such as wordpress and wikispaces); b) They require more time to learn than the widely available platforms and what is learned in designing them — and in students using them — cannot be readily transferred outside the proprietary platform. Moreover, they get changed every few years so there is a fresh learning curve and course materials have to be redesigned; c) They do not accommodate the archiving of previous students’ contributions to be made available to future students and inform their work; d) They enforce a flawed pedagogical model in which everything is modular (which is especially obvious when online students cut to the chase by looking for the assignment due without having worked through the learning that is expected before undertaking the assignment).
  • This said, the widely available online platforms keep evolving.  It makes sense to adjust the way a course uses these platforms and to accommodate student expectations (e.g., for a sidebar menu) if not doing so gets in the way of the learning.  After all, this course is not an online course; it simply makes use of online platforms to provide access to materials as well as upload and share assignments.
  • Perhaps the deepest reason for allowing modifications as one goes is that my pedagogical style involves a trade-off:  Students experience an instructor learning as he goes (with shifts and the need for clarifications that might have been avoided by more preparation), but, as compensation, students also experience an instructor who models taking stock and learning from experiences big and small (see recent post on Refractive practice and an earlier series of snapshots on “teaching/learning for reflective practice”).

Vertical/unity and Horizontal/change: New prospectus and bio

Continuing a series of posts on the development of the Collaborative for Exploration of Scientific and Political Change within the framework of Ben Schwendener’s Seminar on Creativity.


10 June 2011
New prospectus and bio

The Collaborative for Exploration of Scientific and Political Change seeks to support inquiries, teaching-learning interactions, and other practices of critical intellectual exchange and cooperation that challenge the barriers of expertise, gender, race, class, and place that normally restrict access to, understanding of, and influence on the production of scientific knowledge and technologies.

The Collaborative builds on a Problem-Based Learning (PBL) approach to education that allows students to shape their own directions of inquiry and develop their skills as investigators and prospective teachers (in the broadest sense of the word).

A deeper rationale for the Collaborative can be given, involving the ways that we have to bridge gaps in our inherently unbounded realities, which can be enhanced through a sequence of 4Rs—Respect, Risk, Revelation, and Re-engagement. Before asking for these ideas to be explained, consider the following bio.

Bio—Peter Taylor
How have I come to be the kind of person who would initiate a Collaborative for Exploration of Scientific and Political Change? Let me tease out four strands to my story. (If readers resonate with any one of these strands, I encourage them to participate in the Collaborative; through the ensueing experience the other strands might eventually make more sense.)

1. Social change activism lies behind the Collaborative’s explicit mission of challenging the barriers of expertise, gender, race, class, and place in science. During the 1970s my environmental and social activism in Australia led to studies and research in ecology and agriculture. I moved to the United States to undertake doctoral studies in ecology with advisors who saw their scientific and political work as part of the same cloth. I continue to promote this vision of science as politics, even as I have become less active in social movements.

2. Investigation of complexity and change describes my work in ecology and environmental studies, as well as when I analyze and interpret the social situation in which research is undertaken (contributing what is now called science and technology studies or STS. In recent years my investigations of complexity and change have extended to social epidemiological approaches that address the life course development of health and behavior.) I argue that both the situations studied and the social situation of the researchers can be characterized in terms of “unruly complexity” or “intersecting processes” that cut across scales, involve heterogeneous components, and develop over time. These cannot be understood from an outside view; instead positions of engagement must be taken within the complexity. Knowledge production needs to be linked with planning for action and action itself in an ongoing process so that knowledge, plans, and action can be continually reassessed in response to developments — predicted and surprising alike.

3. Innovation in teaching and participatory process. Having this last picture in mind, I explore ways to stimulate researchers (and students training to become researchers) to examine the complexity of their social situatedness so as to change the ways they address the complexity of the situations they study. In broader terms, I want researchers and students to be critical thinkers and reflective practitioners in the sense of contrasting established paths in science, education, and society with others that might be taken, acting upon the insights gained, and taking stock of outcomes. The tools and processes I experiment with in workshops and teaching draw on my work at the University of Massachusetts Boston (UMB) directing Critical and Creative Thinking (CCT), a graduate Program that aims to provide its mid-career or career-changing students with “knowledge, tools, experience, and support so they can become constructive, reflective agents of change in education, work, social movements, science, and creative arts.”

4. Institutional development. Bringing critical analysis of science to bear on the practice and applications of science has not been well developed or supported institutionally, so I contribute actively to new collaborations, programs, and other activities, new directions for existing programs, and collegial interactions across disciplines. In particular, the new CCT track on “Science in the Changing World” and the undergraduate Program in Science, Technology and Values at UMB as well as the New England Workshop on Science and Social Change give me opportunities to develop courses and to promote discussion and teaching innovation concerning the interactions between scientific developments. My experience teaching two graduate courses using a Problem-Based Learning approach—Scientific and Political Change, and Gender, Race and the Complexities of Science and Technology—has led me to this latest initiative, the Collaborative for Exploration of Scientific and Political Change.

For more details, see:
1. Taylor, P.J. (2010) “Biology as Politics: The Direct and Indirect Effects of Lewontin and Levins (An essay review of Biology Under the Influence: Dialectical Essays on Ecology, Agriculture, and Health),” Science as Culture, 19 (2): 241-253.
2. —— (2005) Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
3. —— (2009) Guided Tour of Peter Taylor’s teaching, http://cct.wikispaces.umb.edu/PJTTeaching
4. —— (2011). Guided Tour of Peter Taylor’s service, http://ptaylor.wikispaces.umb.edu/servicereview

Uses of wikis: More and less than expected

Before reviewing a variety of ways one might use wikis—only the last of which is the much-vaunted “collaborative knowledge generation”—let us consider the general kinds of reasons for using a technological tool. (This post comes from a wikipage with links that I created in order to give a talk on the Uses of Wikis at an educational technology conference in May 2010. The post, like the wikipage, requires clicking on the links and viewing the examples in relation to key terms in the bullet points below the links.)

Why use a technological tool (such as a wiki)?

pedagogical guidelines (from 2001)

  • 1. To extend thinking of students
    • a. Use computers first and foremost to teach or learn things that are difficult to teach or learn with pedagogical approaches that are not based on computers.
    • b. Make sure that learning/knowledge-construction is happening, especially when asking students to use the internet.
    • c. Model computer use on best practices to ensure learning without computers.
  • 2. To facilitate group interaction, e.g., by freeing teacher from the bookkeeping part of class activities
  • 3. To enhance communication of knowledge
  • 4. To organize a personal workstation or “virtual office”

guidelines for service & institutional development (from 2005)

  • planning
  • community-building
  • probing & reflection towards coherent principles
  • transparency and inclusiveness of consultation
  • documenting process, product, and evaluations for institutional learning
  • organization, including efficient use of computer technology, to support all of the above


  • modeling/experimenting with tools that colleagues & students can also adopt/adapt
  • developing & sharing material (open source)
  • interacting beyond normal boundaries


  • collaborative generation of knowledge

A range of uses, each followed by the themes/principles (from above) that the use exemplifies
Framework of exchanges

  • beyond normal boundaries; learning/knowledge-construction not very successful

departmental memory and information sharing

  • transparency; institutional learning

towards community guidelines

  • probing & reflection towards coherent principles

Office Hour sign up

  • freeing classtime from bookkeeping; virtual office; organization


  • developing & sharing material

program newsletters

  • community-building; efficiency

recording the process and products of workshops, seminars, and courses (4-day workshop, monthly CCT events)

  • documenting process, product, and evaluations; institutional learning; open source; planning; community-building

community-building & update

  • community-building; documenting process, product, and evaluations; modeling/experimenting with tools

to do list

  • virtual office; efficiency

student reflective practice portfolios; guided tour of teaching

  • documenting process, product, and evaluations/reflection; modeling/experimenting with tools

assembling materials for a fieldbook on teaching

  • developing & sharing material

annotated bibliography entries by students

  • open source

teaching problem-based learning

  • computer use on best practices

-including involvement of panels from a distance

  • interacting beyond normal boundaries; difficult to do without computers

assignment dropboxes and course portfolios

  • efficiency; freeing classtime from bookkeeping

collaborative input to a manuscript or proposal

  • collaborative generation of knowledge
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