It’s Course Design Not Entertainment: A visit from John Boyer




On October 7, we had the pleasure at the University of Saskatchewan of welcoming John Boyer from the Geography Department at Virginia Tech to speak with us about his innovative and increasingly acclaimed approaches to teaching large classes and his approaches for motivating learning and designing assessment.  Recordings of his talks are available at these links, and are embedded at the end of this post.

1. Assessment Innovations that Reduce Cheating and Enhance Learning
2. Teaching (Really) Large Classes (Very) Well

There is some repetition between them since there were slightly different audiences in attendance at both sessions and John therefore needed to describe the format of his course each time.

I got to hang out with John all day long and it was truly inspiring and thought provoking.

A few things that stand out to me about John and his messages:

  • John was intensely and passionately clear about why he wanted students to learn about the world (he teaches an intro to World Regions).  He constantly referred to his vision and not because he was trying to persuade us of anything, but to explain why he chooses to teaches the way he does.  This guy knows his true teaching philosophy and lives by it and thrives as a teacher as a result, I’d say.
  • John has many of the same frustrations with present day student approaches and attitudes that many others report.   He’s decided, because he’s so clear on what he wants them to learn, to set high standards for their engagement and learning and then to let the students decide what to do with respect to both.  Students respond and learn as a result.
  • John faces criticism from a small number of vocal colleagues about his approach.   He says voices of detractors might have stopped him in his tracks, had they started their criticism earlier in his teaching career.  A key to his success, according to John, is that he was being innovative in teaching under the radar of his colleagues and the institution.   It wasn’t until a particular tipping point of the 2,760 person class taught in a blended format with political and arts leaders visiting or skyping in to talk with his students that he started to gain notoriety at his institution and in higher education.  By then, John knew what he was doing and had the deserved confidence and positive outcomes to face the critics.  I’m happy it worked out this way for John, but am concerned about other innovators getting “put back in their places” by group norms and power structures in academia.
  • John embodies a highly entertaining persona.  This  energy and quirkiness must surely enhance the course—but only to a point, and only for some.  I have popped on to his web site  and find his appearances and podcasts much more low key and not necessarily infused with high energy.  Make no mistake, Educatus readers, it is the design of his course that has students engaged.  He provides choice, relevance, community, and fun.  John’s personality is ultimately separate from the design and content of this course.  Let me say it again, it’s the design of this course that leads to the high levels of engagement and learning.  The design.

We’re keen at the Gwenna Moss Centre to have more discussions about some of the innovative and provocative notions brought forward by John.  Let us know what you think.

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