Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Course developments

I have succeeded. My original design for the possible on-line PNI course I talked about a few months ago now looks unbearably stupid. Progress!

And how are you? Well, I hope.

So what happened was, just as I was working on that blog post in December, I was approached by a Ph.D. student who wanted to do what is called a "practicum course" with me on PNI. We're working our way through the course, and she's doing a bang-up job on her first PNI project. So far it's going better than any previous attempt to pass on what I know (maybe because I've tried to do this a few times already and learned a lot about what not to do).

The best part of it is that because "my" student is also an experienced teacher, she is helping me think through the course design in terms of what will best help people learn to do PNI. Also, I've been talking to a few people who wrote after that first blog post, about what kind of course they would like to see.

The main points of feedback I have received so far are:
  • People vary in the scale of PNI they want to use. One of the strengths of PNI is that it scales up or down depending on the context and purpose of each project. Thus a PNI project can range from five people spending a few hours together to ten thousand people interacting over years. Some people want to facilitate small-scale "here we are in a room" PNI projects; others want to tackle larger, deeper projects.
  • People vary in how much time they have to take a PNI course. Some will be tacking the hours on top of full-time work, while others will be able to do the course as part of their work or education.
  • People vary in how they learn best. Some will be fine with readings, but some need a more auditory and/or interactive experience.
  • People vary in how easily they can gather participants for a PNI project. Some people have easy access to a group they can draw stories from, while others will have difficulty finding the people they most want to talk to.
  • People vary in their confidence and comfort in various aspects of the work (planning, interviewing, facilitating groups, handling data). Some can look at concepts or session plans or data formats and run with them; others need to practice and find their way.
  • People vary in how easily they can come up with questions to ask. Some will have no trouble writing useful question sets; others will need considerable help figuring out what to ask and how.
  • People's schedules vary. Some will be able to fit fixed meeting times into their fluid schedules, but others will need ways to participate in the course only early in the morning, late at night, or on a fixed schedule (which may or may not match the fixed schedules of others).
  • People vary in what results they want to get from the course. Some people need to prove (to someone else) that they have achieved something by taking the course; others just need to satisfy themselves.
  • People vary in how much direction and freedom they want in a course. Some people want a lot of freedom to choose, while others want things to be spelled out and don't want to make decisions on their own.
  • People vary in what they want to understand about PNI. Some people just want to learn the practical elements, while others want to delve more deeply into the theory behind the approach.
That's a lot of variation! The best way I can see to accommodate all of these needs is to prepare two separate courses. I can also create more flexibility in the structure of each course. See how this plan sounds to you.

Basic "Just Do It"  Course

The basic PNI course will take place over five weeks. The maximum course time will be four hours per week, so the total time commitment is 20 hours. This course will focus on small-scale PNI at a practical level, without much emphasis on theory or custom work.

Students in the basic course will:
  • Choose some story-eliciting questions from a pre-written set
  • Choose from a few pre-written story forms with questions about stories
  • Carry out a story collection session with a pre-written session plan
  • Record the session and transcribe the stories
  • Use a standard word processor to prepare story cards
  • Carry out a sensemaking session with a pre-written session plan
  • Go through a simple return exercise using a pre-written agenda
Students in the basic course will not:
  • Delve deeply into the theory behind PNI
  • Set up or run a project planning meeting
  • Write their own questions
  • Design their own group sessions
  • Decide how they will collect stories (everyone will use the same method)
  • Use NarraFirma
  • Get into narrative catalysis
  • Think about intervention
  • Need to collect more than 30 stories
  • Need to involve more than 4 or 5 participants
I was going to write next that students will "learn how to" do things like collect stories and lead a sensemaking session. But really, learning to do these things isn't the point. You can learn how to do them by reading my book (and/or a combination of books about oral history, narrative inquiry, and facilitation). What this course will provide is the opportunity to do things -- collect stories, watch people tell each other stories, work with your collected stories, help other people work with stories -- with support and discussion along the way. The point of the course is to make sure that your first PNI project is a successful project.

To that end, the emphasis in the basic course will be to "Just Do It" without having to make difficult decisions. Using pre-written story forms and session plans will free people from the intricacies of custom projects. Students won't have to decide whom to include, how to collect stories, what questions to ask about stories, or what to do with the stories once they get them. All of these things will be prescribed by the course, in as simple a way as possible.

The schedule for the basic course will be something like this:
  • Week 1: Introduction to PNI, planning the project
  • Week 2: Collecting the stories
  • Week 3: Transcribing the stories, planning the sensemaking session
  • Week 4: Facilitating the sensemaking session
  • Week 5: Supporting return, wrapping up the project
You'll notice that I've given the story collection phase two weeks, or nearly half the time of the course. This is because story collection is the bottleneck of PNI. If you can't get enough stories, or you get opinions instead of stories, or your tape recorder breaks, the rest of your project can fall apart. Giving people two weeks to collect stories and process them builds in a safety buffer. People who didn't get enough good stories on their first try can try again before their sensemaking session.

Another critical component of the basic course is that I would like to get everyone to transcribe some stories. This task seems like something you'd want to hand off to an underling, but no matter who you are in the world, transcribing stories told in conversation can teach you a lot about stories and how they work.

Each week of the course will include:
  • Assigned readings (not more than 20 pages per week, usually from WWS)
  • Optional readings (not necessary, but available for those who want to spend more time; probably not from WWS)
  • A 30-minute live-call presentation (by me), with Q&A afterward, also available on video for those who can't make the call
  • An activity or task, depending on what part of the project is to be done that week (or what you might be catching up on)
  • A 60-minute video-call feedback session with me, also available on video
  • Ongoing online conversation via forum messages and an "always on" chat room (probably using Moodle) 
Compared with what I described in my last post, this schedule is lighter and much more flexible (due to my realization that people have, um, lives). Some people will be able to attend both the presentation and the feedback session, but those who cannot attend can catch up with both via video. I will also provide feedback via online conversations in the forum and in chat (though not every minute of every day, of course). There will be no study or project groups in the basic course.

Advanced "DIY" Course

The advanced PNI course will take place over twelve weeks. The maximum course time will again be four hours per week (making the course total 48 hours), but that will be an average, because some weeks will be busier than others.

Students in the advanced course will:
  • Hold a project planning meeting (even if it's just by themselves)
  • Use NarraFirma's questions to think through their project plans
  • Choose how they will collect stories
  • Write their own questions for and about stories
  • Test and improve their questions
  • Collect at least 60 stories in any way they choose (interviews, story sessions, online form, email, etc)
  • Enter their stories into NarraFirma
  • Prepare some catalytic material (at least a few graphs) to use during sensemaking
  • Design their own sensemaking session
  • Carry out the sensemaking session
  • Reflect on the session using the questions in NarraFirma
  • Choose, design, and carry out a small intervention (like distributing some stories in the community) as decided in their sensemaking session
  • Fill out all of the recording/reflection screens in NarraFirma to document the project and their learnings to use in the future
Students in the advanced course will not:
  • Use pre-written story forms (though they can draw question templates from NarraFirma) 
  • Need to collect more than 60 stories (though 80+ is best)
  • Need to involve more than 20 participants
In the advanced course, as in the basic course, students will collect stories, watch people tell each other stories, work with their collected stories, and help other people work with stories. The difference is that in the advanced course, students will be encouraged to make their own decisions, bring their creativity and skills to their varied project designs, and delve more deeply into what PNI can do.

The weeks in the advanced course will play out something like this:
  • Week 1: Introduction to PNI concepts and connections; introduction to NarraFirma; forming course, study, and project groups (see below)
  • Week 2: Hold a project planning meeting; fill out the planning sections in NarraFirma
  • Week 3: Design the story collection method and story form
  • Week 4: Do some pilot testing; refine the story form and collection method
  • Week 5-7: Collect stories, transcribe them, enter them into NarraFirma
  • Week 8-9: Design the sensemaking session; prepare catalytic materials using NarraFirma
  • Week 10: Facilitate the sensemaking session; have a post-session review; answer questions about the session in NarraFirma
  • Week 11: Design and carry out a small intervention (like distributing some stories, creating a simple narrative simulation, or bringing in some appreciative inquiry, narrative therapy, or participatory theater) (If people don't want to do interventions, they can do additional sensemaking sessions instead)
  • Week 12: Review the whole project; answer the return questions in NarraFirma
You'll notice the same generous amount of time given to story collection and working with the stories and other data (5 weeks out of 12). The bottleneck in this course is potentially even bigger than the one in the basic course, because people might be collecting stories in a variety of ways (interviews, group sessions, the internet). And people will have a variety of backgrounds when it comes to dealing with the technology required to create graphs. And the different types of questions used might lead people to different mixings of qualitative and quantitative work on their stories. So I want to keep the middle part of the course quite loose, to make sure everyone is ready to move on to sensemaking afterward.

A week in the advanced course will include:
  • Assigned readings (not more than 50 (?) pages per week, usually from WWS)
  • Optional readings (not necessary, but available for those who want to spend more time; probably not from WWS)
  • A 30-minute live-call presentation (by me), with Q&A afterward, also available on video for those who can't make the call
  • Some sort of activity or task, depending on where you are in your project (it does not have to be the same for every participant in every week, though people should probably try not to get too far out of synch)
  • Some form of study-group meeting (but when these happen will be up to the participants to decide)
  • A 90-minute video-call feedback session with me, per course group, also available on video
  • Ongoing online conversation via forum messages and an "always on" chat room (probably using Moodle)
I've dropped the whole on-Monday-we-will-do this schedule, which now seems perfectly stupid. Busy people can't commit to such a detailed schedule. So, usually the presentation will take place on Monday or Tuesday, and usually the feedback session will take place later in the week, possibly on Friday, but we'll figure out when to schedule these things as the course gets started.

You will notice that I added a definite live presentation to each week (in both courses). I don't want to disappoint people who learn best by listening and talking. I learn best by reading and writing, but making a course only I would enjoy seems pretty stupid. So a big part of the preparation for the basic and advanced courses, on my part, will be the creation of lots of presentations that essentially say what's in my book, for people who learn better that way.

In the advanced course we will have three categories of groups among participants:
  • Course groups: These groups will form due to the basic necessity that, if we have more than six people in the course, I won't be able to give everyone enough attention in the presentations and feedback sessions. They will only exist if we have more than six people in the course at a time, and they will be defined mostly by time zones and when people can fit meetings into their schedules.
  • Study groups: course participants will be encouraged to form groups to talk about their projects together. I won't tell them when to talk or how often to talk, but I will assume/hope that people are forming such groups, to deepen their learning with peer feedback. I expect that these will be anywhere from two to six people in size, and will depend on interests and schedules.
  • Project groups: some course participants will want to share their PNI  projects. They will work on their story forms and collection methods together; they will pool the stories and other data they collect; they might even hold joint sensemaking sessions. They might enter only one project into NarraFirma. Everyone will be free to join or not join a project group. I will make a rule that project groups cannot have more than three people in them; otherwise everyone might not get a chance to do everything.
Another thing I'm thinking about a lot lately is what people will want to receive at the end of the course. The Ph.D. student I'm helping right now is doing the course for credits that will be part of her official transcript. Most people won't be doing that, but I do think people will want to have some kind of certificate or proof that they took the course and passed it. (I had to force myself to take the scare quotes off "passed.") I'm hampered in being able to offer a certificate because I don't have a corporation with an official-sounding name. I'm just little-ol' me. I can imagine that people who get funding and/or permission to take the course might need some kind of official-looking result. Would a certificate saying "I passed Cynthia Kurtz's PNI course" be useful to people? Or would it be just be weird? (Maybe there's a "How to Create an Online Course" course. Of course there is.)

You know what? The longer I think about this new offering-to-the-world, the more I think I'm not ready to support it just yet, as in, within the next few months. I've got lots of projects (paid and otherwise) going on, and I still have some groundwork to do before I'm ready. I think the course wants to happen, and I think the world wants it to happen, but I also think it needs more time to mature into what it wants to be.

Most of the reason I'm writing so much about these courses here on my blog is to find out what you want me to do. I want to gather feedback on these ideas, so I can design the best courses I can. If you're still reading, you must be interested. Or you might be one of those people who skim everything, and you popped down here to see how it ends. In either case, if you have any reactions to or suggestions about what I've laid out here, I'm eager to hear them.


Unknown said...

Hi Cynthia, long time no speak. Yes, I'm still very interested in either or both courses. The Conference I'm organising at the moment will be very much done and dusted by this time next week and I will be able to properly concentrate on my PhD. Ive been on a week long PAR course in February and am looking forwards to many other workshops including working with musicians without borders over the course of a week in the summer. Things are really going to be amazingly busy, not to mention being full-time single dad to my two year old, but i can commit to four hours a week no worries. Anyway, please count me in! Cheers, Liam x

Cynthia Kurtz said...

Thanks for the comment, Liam! You are officially counted in, and I'm officially getting more and more excited about this whole thing. Keep watching this space...