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Forrest Gump, the titular character of the beloved American film Forrest Gump, is known for saying “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.” I would argue, that life is much more like a box of onions. You don’t know what you’ve got until you peel back the layers. 

I think every designer has heard, at least 1000 times, that “Context is King”. It is true. With every design we ask, how might we best understand the context from which our students engage with the learning experience? Who are they? What do they already know? Where did they come from? Why are they here? The process of uncovering, looking for answers, reveals who we are designing for.

When a professor walks into our first meeting, all I know is their name and the class they are teaching. I want to hear their story. What are you passionate about and how does it align with your course? What do you really want your students to be able to do when they finish your course? How do you connect your course to their lives?  What works well? What doesn’t? Through casual conversation we begin to peel back the layers of the life of the course. Each course has its’ own story. Every layer is unique. Do you remember doing prose analysis in high school? How, in order to understand the story you had to be able to identify the who, what, when, where and examine why? The early phases of the course design process is similar. What is the story of your course? As we discuss the life of your course the context begins to take shape. 

I could stop there and build an engaging learning experience based on the context we’ve uncovered.  Or, I could ask, what new questions arise from the context? What exists beneath the surface? For the past six months I have been working closely with professors and our data analytics team at CETL. We’ve been using data to delve into the subtext of course stories. Data does not always provide a direct look at the subtext. However, it allows us to peel back hidden layers in a way that is quantifiable. Subtext is found in the spaces between the known, fixed points. So, if we ask the right questions and look in the right places, data can help reveal your students’ backstories, motivations and goals. It can completely alter the story of a course or confirm your hunches. 

Course design is an iterative process. My initial goal is to understand your course story, in order to help you rewrite the story. In the revision, we create subtext deliberately, based on what we’ve learned about your students.  With a firm grasp of context, subtext and data we can create meaningful, personalized learning experiences that feel authentic. Are you curious about what exists beneath the surface of your course? Come peel some onions at CETL.

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