Odyssey Project: A Search for New Learning Solutions

Article excerpt

Nearly three thousand years ago, a blind Greek poet sang about his hero's desire to return home after ten years of fighting in the Trojan War. Among its numerous themes, Homer's Odyssey explores the relationship between the human need to problem solve and the need for self-growth and self-realization. Because the poem links self-knowledge with analytic thinking and critical reasoning, it served as a perfect model for some Arizona State University faculty and staff to find solutions to some of the most common problems associated with the lecture method of teaching.

Our target was Humanities 110, an introductory, inter-disciplinary, general-education course that routinely attracts 120 students per semester. The goal was to transform a large, often disenfranchised lecture class with average attrition and attendance rates (25% and 30%, consistent with local and national figures) into an active, self-directed learning experience based on an "information-problem-applications (IPA)" strategy.

These desires took the metaphoric form of an odyssey--a quest for instructors and students alike that used a hypertextual knowledge base in tandem with a cooperative-learning ed agogy as its vessel.

* The Problems Defined

The problems associated with Humanities 110 are like those of many typical college lecture classes, problems some educators believe are inherent in the traditional pedagogy of high-enrollment, introductory courses. The most serious ones--the static course material itself (a standard anthology textbook that presents information in a linear, time-determined context), the restrictions placed on presentation and the physical limitations of large lecture halls--were assumed to prevent students from engaging the course contents in a more analytical and critical manner.

Further, the role of the student as a transcriber also made intellectual passivity normative; it prevented students from assimilating course information through their own initiatives and then doing something with it, applying the knowledge to a problem. This in contrast with students being tested on how well they remember data. The lecture format and its standard methods of testing provide little support for any sustained, in-class, student-teacher analytical interaction. At the same time, lecturing tends to discourage and devalue student cooperation.

* Addressing the Problems

Recognizing these problems, our goal for the Odyssey Project was to answer two fundamental questions:

* How could the course be restructured and managed so as to transform it from an instructor-centered, one-dimensional, information mode of presentation, into a student-driven, multi-informational, active learning environment?

* How could technology be used to help in this transformation, especially since a good deal of computer-aided instructional technology tends to reproduce many of the same problems of the lecture mode (rote memorization, drill and practice, etc.)?

The challenge was to create a new type of course--one that combined a radically different, but sound, pedagogy with an effective use of technology. Our desire was to offer a pedagogically determined, technological solution that better reflected the learning process. We wanted a course-delivery strategy cognitively truer to what happens when students really learn through inquiry, analysis, synthesis and application, as opposed to asking them to merely store data. We wanted students to be able to think on their own by providing them with the opportunities for concrete intellectual and social experiences, active experimentation, reflective observation and application of abstract conceptualizations.

Thus we created the Odyssey Project, a medium to encourage students to both think about and challenge what they were told by pursuing knowledge in a freely associative manner. We wanted to place the students in charge of their own intellectual itinerary throughout the course and to rehumanize the learning experience. …