Blog

Quest to Learn as a Model for Higher Education

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

There is a tremendous amount of soul-searching going on in K-12 and higher education. New education saviors appear almost daily touting free online options that largely take both the teacher and active learning out of the equation. While initiatives like Coursera, MITx, the Khan Academy, Udacity, and the just announced Edx deserve credit for making educational resources available for free globally, none of these efforts really engages learners in ways which promote active, creative learning, and innovative thinking.

So while these platforms may be powerful forces for beginning to bridge the digital divide and driving down the costs of higher education, they will not ultimately prove as useful and powerful as traditional university education, which has more potential to actively engage students. Even that potential is often undermined by the passive lecture format employed in higher education. There certainly are some institutions of higher learning, both online and F2F, which employ an active model of learning, but they are few and far between. It is time for a revolution in higher education that gets students excited to learn and takes advantage of the latest technology in order to do so. Best yet, such an effort could work online as well as in-person. What is this amazing cure-all for what ails education? It’s called Quest to Learn (Q2L), and it is currently only available to a select few middle school and high school (coming soon) students.

Here’s a look at their educational model and how it could be transferred to higher education.

The Q2L Model
In this video, Katie Salen, game designer, Executive Director of the Institute of Play, and founder of Q2L, discusses the basic concept and mission of the school:

The most relevant point of the Q2L model for transferring it to higher education is the underlying concepts of systems and design thinking.

"Design thinking is actually a way of looking at the world. It’s a way of looking at the world as someone who is active in thinking about how to solve problems, is active in analyzing and understanding how things work. And we think that’s a great stance to have to look at the world generally. We believe these kids are going to grow up, through work in our school, as design thinkers. It doesn’t mean that they are all going to go on to be designers in their professional lives. We would imagine and love that some of those kids would step into roles as scientists, wanting to be writers, wanting to be musicians, wanting to be whatever. They still will have this perspective on how they look at the world, and that will inform any discipline that they go into. The heart of everything that we are doing is we are trying to help kids try to understand how to be in charge of their own learning, and continue to grow as learners across their whole life, because . . . they are going to need to adapt, to learn new things constantly." – Katie Salen, Executive Director, Institute of Play

This seems like a perfect basis for what higher education could and should be in the Information Age. Students need to be active, lifelong learners, who understand the complex interworking of societal systems. They also need to have the ability to both decode information from new media and to create that media for themselves as a way of participating in the discussions that happen in the world around them. So how can this model be incorporated in higher education?

The Q2L Model Applied to Higher Ed
Here is a closer look at several of the key features of the Q2L model and the ways in which this design could be transferred to higher education.

  • Inquiry-based learning around real world challenges – Outside of literature classrooms, engaging students in real-world problem solving at the college level is fairly straightforward, though it does require work on the part of the instructor or institution to facilitate the experiences. One example that I have used in college classes is to have students work with clients to develop media campaigns in support of their institutions. In this way, students have worked to promote a local fire tax initiative, to promote the CASA program, for Appalachian Trail conservancy, and many other civic and social causes. This ties in very well with a curriculum that makes media literacy and design part of its core components.
  • Professional trajectories – Setting students on the path for future employment can be very useful for non-traditional learners and in online environments as well as for traditional students in brick-and-mortar schools. Supporting students in working on projects that help them meet particular professional goals or which directly contribute to their work or internship opportunities allows students to gain real world experience creating media that will support their professional aspirations.
  • Design/Systems thinking – These two concepts are interrelated and can be addressed in all subject areas in higher education. Students should be supported in developing a deep understanding of the systems in which they live, work, and play, and the ways in which the design of media can utilize these relationships to create broadly appealing and powerful messages and experiences. On a different level, making students think about the practical elements of media/game design and the systems at play within the virtual environment enhances digital literacy and provides models through which they can simulate and experiment with variables that they will need to understand in the real world.
  • Learning network – One powerful feature of the Q2L model that is often overlooked in traditional higher education environments is the notion that the classroom is just one node within a larger learning network that stretches beyond the classroom and campus and is contributed to by all the experiences that a student has. Tying into these other sources of learning and linking them to classroom experiences fosters lifelong learning, an understanding of complex systems, and validates learning in all contexts. One simple way of accomplishing this in higher education is to encourage students to move learning outside of the classroom as can be seen in the University of Kentucky’s A&S Wired College.
  • Identity formation – While identity formation is certainly a priority in middle and high school, it is just as important in the college environment. Encouraging students to interact with real problems and clients, solving problems in the field, understanding the links between systems, and engaging in professional opportunities all give them an opportunity to form strong identities that can serve as guideposts to future learning and employment opportunities.
  • Embedded assessment – All of these concepts make summative assessment mostly unnecessary. If students are not actively working when they should be, are failing to meet clients’ needs, or are not hitting milestones in project development, it will be obvious both to them and their instructor. Implementing a model such as that employed by Q2L necessitates ongoing assessment which can generally be informal. Learning is, after all a process, and failing to participate in any portion of the process in an engaged, problem-based learning environment will trigger built-in warning flags that allow for quick and effective course correction.

Resistance is Futile
For most colleges, this is a radical departure from the normal routine of higher education which is largely classroom-based and relies extensively on a passive learning model. There are, however, already pockets of resistance within higher education that employ some or all of these methods to engage their students. Many of the sciences, business programs, computer science, and media studies departments already understand the value of engaging students in projects for real clients. While they don’t all include media production or the concepts of design thinking or systems theory, they, nonetheless can be strong internal allies for broadening the implementation of this model in higher education.  Completely revamping university curriculums is not going to happen overnight. This will be a gradual process, and resistance is likely to be pitched. However, we live in a gaming society where digital media is the ultimate dictator, students like games and enjoy learning from them and making them. As the Borg would say, "resistance is futile."

Doing something like Q2L in the higher ed classroom? Share your experiences here, on Google +, or on Twitter @drjwmarquis.