Learning bundles: A tool to enhance student learning in higher education

Awardee: Katherine Merseth (HGSE)

Summary: Awardee plans to create a tool that combines video, links to online material, and classroom exercises to facilitate student thinking about complex topics on which experts disagree.

Enduring dilemmas: Finding the song beneath the words

How do we help students understand more deeply the contours and structural foundations that ground controversies and dilemmas? How do we encourage students to look below the surface, to understand the subtleties of an argument and to develop an appreciation for the nuance of differing points of view? These are the motivating questions behind HGSE’s “Learning Bundles.” Grounded in the belief that students need experiences and tools to grapple productively with competing and compelling points of view, Learning Bundles combine video, supporting readings, and classroom discussion to facilitate student thinking about complex topics on which experts disagree. Each Bundle presents students with contrasting and conflicting perspectives about a challenging topic and asks them to examine not only the points of view of differing experts but also the assumptions, values and beliefs underlying those points of view. “Our project was very much directed toward building students’ understanding of what the arguments are—their nuance and subtleties-rather than taking one side or another,” project lead Katherine K. Merseth, Senior Lecturer on Education, explained.

Education dilemmas in American public education formed the basis for the initial pilot project and the resulting Bundles were used with undergraduate and graduate students, as well as alumni. These Bundles took up the often-contentious topics of Race-Conscious Admissions in higher education and the Charter School Movement in k-12 education. Two additional Bundles are currently in development, one related to US/Soviet relations and the second exploring the obligation and approach of schools to teach English to K-12 students whose first language is not English. Team members Bill Wisser and Sara Suchman stated that, although each topic presents different challenges, the process has become more systematized as they have become more familiar with what makes for a good dilemma, the best way to film it, the editing process and classroom approaches to use the Bundles.

Bundles incorporate technology through videotaped interviews, survey data collection and online or blended learning opportunities. Initially, the team had to grapple with questions they had not anticipated about posting the material online. They had to provide answers for their guest speakers about the audience and use of the online content. Who would see it? How would it be used? Merseth said that the experts needed direct involvement in the process to make it work, and that her team had to answer use, copyright and implementation questions from the get-go.

“Once you get in the middle of it, you realize that how you planned to do it might not work the way you thought it would,” Merseth remarked. She cited the freedom to experiment with various formats as one of the most beneficial affordances of the grant funding: “Because this was new territory, we didn’t know ahead of time what the outcomes would be and a grant such as this allowed us to enter the work with a spirit of inquiry and improvement rather than staying close to the familiar.” With this freedom, the team has experimented using the Bundles in various settings, collected data on these trials and honed the teaching steps.

Lingering questions span both technical support and instructional implementation. “How can we provide wide access as well as implementation suggestions? What would a library of Bundles look like?” Wisser asked an audience at the 2014 Harvard University IT Summit, while Suchman commented on the possibility of scaling this concept across disciplines and the opportunity to support faculty in this new pedagogical approach. Equally important is how to package the knowledge that Merseth, Suchman and Wisser gained to enable others to build their own Bundles in their own subject areas. They believe that Bundles offer a format and platform for working with dilemmas that crosses disciplines. Merseth strongly believes it is a new and unique form of pedagogy that others can learn to use to enhance student learning. The team’s next steps include working with groups across the university to produce course or program-specific Bundles and developing instructional support for faculty interested in using these Learning Bundles.