The Studio Model: Collaborative, Real-World Learning

I am currently in the process of re-designing a high school Innovative Technology (IT) course with a group of incredible teachers, and have been documenting highlights of my work here on TechPudding. My first post about the course re-design gave an overview of our move from basic how-tos of Microsoft Office applications, to a dynamic approach to helping students explore and examine technological change, ethical, social and psychological interactions with technology, and the application of an array of Web 2.0 tools (along with Office) in learning and productivity in the real world. We also decided to use the ISTE NETS (International Society for Technology in Education National Educational Technology Standards) for Students and Teachers to guide our re-design.

In today’s post, I will examine an incredible article that I just happened to stumble upon online (that’s the beauty of so much information at our fingertips!). I can’t wait to share it with my IT team members! The article is titled, The Studio Experience: Educational Reform in Instructional Technology by Lloyd P. Rieber. It describes a structure for education that truly mirrors the real-world workplace where designers work in teams to complete projects. With some adaptation, I believe that we can learn from it in designing our course.

The article outlines the ‘studio approach’, an approach used in graduate studies courses teaching multimedia design for educational purposes at the University of Georgia. The following are highlights  that made me think hard about how to structure not only our IT course, but our school in general.

The big idea that the studio model rests on is constructivism and in particular, three  ideas: (1) Learning is an active process in which individuals construct meaning. (2) Learning is a social and collaborative activity. (3) Learning happens through the construction of artifacts that are shared and critiqued by peers. Furthermore, to support constructivist learning, scaffolding helps us move from simple to complex concepts with different levels of structure and support (Rieber, para. 3). The idea of constructivism is not new to teachers, but it is a challenge for many to apply it in their teaching. I appreciate the emphasis on on-going critiques (a.k.a. reflections) of learning in all classes.

Rieber states, “Tools, such a computer authoring languages, are often taught according to the tool’s structure, not in how it is actually used in a design project. This is akin to learning English by studying a dictionary” (para. 4). I appreciate this comparison with learning from a dictionary because it points out our lack of context and application in the real world. He also acknowledges that when tools are taught through their structure, they are usually taught according to an “ideal sequence” (para. 4), without taking into account individual student differences in learning processes and task approach. This often leads to instructors having to re-teach material to students because they do not understand how to apply learning in different situations outside of the “ideal”.

Rieber also states that the “one-course/one-instructor model” isolates students and faculty in an artificial way, and teachers usually focus on a few tools that they are most comfortable with. Instead, students should collaborate and critique each other’s work in an on-going process of learning while faculty should share their expertise by sharing instructional duties and tasks (para. 4-5).

Students in the course learn concepts of design while developing technical skills in various software tools in a social setting (in both formal and informal collaborations). Students from all levels work and learn together. Mentorship teams are established and students and instructors use online learning management systems, email, and online resources to aid learning 24 hours a day (para. 6).

Student work in the course consists of projects, some of which have prescribed components, and others of which are determined by the students. Students share their work daily in design critiques with others, while documenting their own reflections related to their work and the theory and literature that they study simultaneously. A significant portion of student assessment is tied to personal reflections as well as evaluation criteria that students themselves create in conjunction with faculty (para. 7).

The final project in the course consists of real-world client services projects. They are posted on an online job board and students apply to the ones that they would like to work on. Team leaders then comb through the applications and decide which students to ‘hire’ for the jobs. Students can also be involved as “consultants” or “contractors” to other teams while working on their own projects (para. 9). 

There are several forms of assessment and evaluation of student work in the course:

  • Studio Showcase – a professional conference where all major projects are showcased to peers and the wider university and professional community, generating excitement and motivation
  • Comprehensive Exams – not written tests, but participation in online discussions as well as an oral exam about theory, literature, and practice involving faculty, professionals, and peers (para. 11-12)

In the re-conceptualization of their program, the multimedia design students and faculty at the University of Georgia learned some important lessons. One lesson was that change takes time, and both students and faculty members had to be patient and open-minded to a highly interactive and collaborative way of working and learning together (para. 16).

Also, it was vital that students became mentors and tutors to other students as well as faculty members so that instructors didn’t have to feel as if they had to know everything. They therefore required each student to contribute at least 10 hours to a volunteer position of their choice. Many chose to volunteer right in the design studio to help other students learn. Some also chose to lead online discussions, workshops, or seminars for other students based on their own expertise and passions (para. 18).

I would like to point out that this article was written in 2000, and the studio model is commonly used in post-secondary level art, design, and architecture schools. This shows that we are woefully far behind in making learning relevant, rigorous, and collaborative for our students.

The Studio Model in High School IT Class

The work of the multimedia design faculty at the University of Georgia is exceptional, and can be applied to high school classes. Here is how I might structure our IT class.

  • Teachers should teach collaboratively. We can begin by timetabling so that groups of teachers can share classes and teach to their strengths. We can start with our Multimedia, Design, and IT teachers. We can exchange classes for periods of time or teach them in combined groups, and focus on different aspects of the technologies, while engaging in professional learning together.
  • Students should be required to support other students in their learning in the areas of their strengths. They can choose between different types of support, from answering questions on an online discussion board, to providing just-in-time help in class, to planning a formal mini-workshop, to creating instructional videos or hand-outs.
  • Students should engage in regular personal reflections, peer critiques/discussions, and beta tests on peers. In a high school class, this process requires guidance because students have been taught for so long that what they do only matters to their teacher in order to receive a mark. I believe that we need some sort of reflection daily, and structured processes to help students and teachers become comfortable with it.
  • Client services projects can be conducted throughout the duration of a course. Students can select from a bank of projects submitted by the community, as well as school clubs, athletics, events, or celebrations. Students must stay in contact with their clients, manage their time based on timelines, submit drafts, and reflect on their progress for different jobs. Furthermore, students can apply for these jobs and the teacher and client can help to place them in the appropriate teams. The idea of also having contracted or consultant students is also a great way for peers to learn from each other while engaged in their own projects.
  • We need a few formal celebrations and showcases of student work to the wider school and professional community. If we can contact some professionals in the field and have them guide our learning and then critique the final products, that would be incredibly meaningful for students and staff.
  • The idea of an oral exam is intriguing. Not all students might be comfortable with this so perhaps we can structure them more and give students time to develop their answers. Then, with their regular practice of peer critiques, they can perhaps select one of a few ways to participate in an informal ‘defense’ of their learning and development through the course. This would be a wonderful culminating experience for students and their peers.

What do you think of the studio experience in your classroom? How might you adopt characteristics of the studio model?

Rieber, L. P. (2000). The studio experience: Educational reform in instructional technology. In D. G. Brown (Ed.), Teaching with technology: Seventy-five professors from eight universities tell their stories (pp. 195-196). Bolton, MA: Anker Publishing Company.
(Image: Brainstorm at INDEX: Views, by @boetter. 2005. Available under a Creative Commons License.)