My Personal Learning Theory to Application

Last week, I shared my personal learning theory which included things like, “learning by doing”, “failure is the best teacher”, and “learning should be from cradle to grave”.  I also explained and shared that my belief in constructivism theory where the student is not a passive learner and shared my alignment with different learning theories like Meaningful, Experimental, Discovery, Personalized and Organizational.  I also mentioned that I believe in building communities of practice where groups of people who share a common passion or concern come together to help each other learn.

This week, I am going to share with you as to how we have come together as a team compromising of faculty and staff from UNT at Frisco on a BS in Project Design and Analysis (PD&A) degree program to implement some of  the learning theories mentioned above.

Before we get into the details of the degree program, we have to share that the objectives in this degree program is to prepare students for the 21st century, be career ready while being good citizens upon graduation.  The learning process is built on constructivism, where these students will construct their own knowledge with the experiences that they gain as learner (Elliott et al, pg. 256).  The role of a teacher in this model of learning is more of a facilitator than an educator with a primary objective of creating a collaborative problem-solving environment where students actively participate and create their own learnings.

In our degree program, we created a cohort of high school graduating students and put them in a student-centered approach of problem-based learning where we work with an industry partner to give us a real-life complex project that has no pre-defined answers.  We then use this project to as a rallying point for both students and the faculty that will teaching the students for the semester to come together for mutual success.  Faculty members tailor their courses to create learning paths that will allow the students to take their class learnings and apply them to the project.

As an example, the project for the semester is in the area of autonomous vehicle hence all the faculty such as English, Psychology, Design, Analysis, History, etc. will blend in learnings that the students can apply to the project.  In this example the history class focused on US history prior to 1865 and the concept of railroads was discussed in class as a new technology along with fears and hopes of the people when this new technology was introduced prior to 1865 with the question as to how does this experience apply to what we are working on today.

In a traditional pedagogy of teaching and in regular degree programs, a student could be taking five classes with five professors and very rarely, would one professor even know the name of the other professor let alone interact with the other professor.  In PD&A program, not only do the professors know each other they meet once a week for an hour to share experiences since we know that knowledge is gained by students by building on previous experiences.  We also know that the learnings in the classes overlap hence we connect to provide opportunities to reinforce scaffold learning from different perspectives.

One of the common comments that I get from my new students is that, “Professor Ali is very ambiguous” and the reality is that I am ambiguous.  In my teaching style, I do not provide answers, I provoke them with questions.  In one of my classes we had the CEO of NT Logistics, Lynn Gravely come in for a great presentation in which he asked one of the students by name to write 2 paragraphs of what did the student learn from his pet.  The student did it and at the end of the class after our guest lecturers had left, the student asked me for Lynn’s email address just so that he could send him what he had written.  I asked the student if he really wanted me to give him the email address, he smiled, said no, and one minutes later said “got it, just had to find him on LinkedIn.”

Technology also plays a big role in our program since the students work in small teams of 4 to 6 students every semester, they have to work well together and leverage technology a lot from Microsoft Teams for collaboration, Teams or Zoom for connecting virtually, and then either the Google or the Microsoft suite of tools to collaborate on their project schedule, status reports, action log, final and intermediate presentations, etc.  Due to the pandemic, I am teaching in a hybrid model where my classes are alternating between face to face and virtual every other week.  I like the breakout room functionality of zoom since in most of my classes, we break into teams to brainstorm or problem solve, it is much easier to follow safe distance guidelines in breakout rooms when working in small teams.

The learning theory that best aligns with my beliefs and practices is Problem Based Learning, the reason I can resonate with this learning theory is because the focus is on creating the environment and allowing the students to explore on their own especially since in PBL there are no right or wrong answers.  This allows creativity to flow and provides opportunities for everyone to learn from each other.  In my 35 years of work experience prior to becoming a professor in 2019, I was in a formal supervisory to leadership role for 30 of those 35 years.  In my personal journey, my leadership style has shifted from being an Autocratic in my initial years to that of a Coach, in this pedagogy, the role of the teacher is that of a facilitator which mirrors my management style and very similar to being a coach.

At the end of the day, the testimonial that counts the most is the voice of the customer, the attached video captures Brian Moen summarizing the project presentation by cohort 1 students at the end of their first semester after high school.