Each subsequent class period is led by a student who assigns reading materials (from the primary or secondary literature, new media sources, agency or NGO reports, or one of their own research papers in progress) to their fellow students via an online course “wiki” 2-3 days before the class. By the night before the class meeting, all other students are required to contribute to the wiki page by posting an article, video, or other contribution related to the main topic with one or two lines of annotation. Because the wiki records the user name and time of contribution, it is easy to ensure compliance with the class expectations.
The effect of an adaptive syllabus is twofold. First, students have ownership over the course. Educational theorists and practitioners have demonstrated multiple benefits of student ownership in science education, including greater self-direction, self-motivation, improved learning outcomes, culturally relevant learning outcomes, and better matching to the cognitive process of learning itself.
Second, colleges and universities today, both public and private, are often diverse environments with students from a range of socio-economic and geographic backgrounds. Courses developed with students in an adaptive fashion can harness their often-substantial experience in foreign travel, exposure to alternative political and economic regimes, and hands-on laboratory and field research. In a traditional course, the experiential knowledge of students is rarely effectively tapped in the classroom, and, at the extreme, can be viewed as intrusive on the discussion.
By activating multiple semi-independent problem solvers in the shaping of a class period, the information flow is much different than that in a traditional discussion course or seminar (Fig. 1).
In the traditional classroom (Fig. 1, left, the role of the instructor is well defined and the class period acts as a filter to homogenize the material that all students receive in the same fashion. The source materials are typically small in number, and from a low diversity of sources. For example, a traditionally structured class on “ecosystem-based management” typically involves a discussion of 2-3 papers per class from the primary literature or from governmental natural resource agency reports (Fig. 1, left). In the alternative classroom model discussed here (Fig. 1, right), a wide diversity and high number of source materials are utilized, and interconnection among students (not just between the instructor and the students) is high. In this model, the class period is not a filter between the instructor and students, but a dynamic entity created by the students, their interpretations of the materials they and their classmates contributed to the wiki, and the experiences they bring to the class. Students are free to choose from a wide variety of source materials, including variations on previous posts to the wiki or previous classes. Having a wiki space where these contributions can be incorporated into the structure of the course and a discussion space where they can be modified gives the course the same type of recursive growth potential seen in complex adaptive systems.
Experienced teachers will see that there is a lot of overlap with these methods and the emerging interest in “Project-based” or “Problem-based” learning at the K-12 level. In these methods, the required curriculum is stealthily hidden in projects assigned to students to complete individual or in groups.