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Seeing Education in 50 Shades of Plaid!

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

It is a rare case in higher education when form and function mesh to create a perfect storm of engagement and learning. It is even rarer for that to happen in a classroom containing nearly 3,000 students. It almost seems like such an achievement might require a superhero or superprofessor to pull it off. That is, however,  exactly what has happened at Virginia Tech where Senior Instructor of Geography, John Boyer, has donned the alter ego of The Plaid Avenger to accomplish a feat that most in education would never have imagined to be true. Boyer, the Avenger teaches a massive Geography course on World Regions that hosts visits from real world leaders on Skype, and requires students to Tweet three times a day as if they were world leaders on global events as they happen.

Plaid, along with his trusted sidekick KP, pulls off this monumental task with some powerful uses of technology, such as hosting "Live Office Hours" on UStream, and a flair for the dramatic starting with his colorful attire, series of comic books, and a custom-made textbook that puts a plaid spin on world regions. It takes a special person, and personality to make a class engaging and interesting for 3,000 students and Boyer uses his outlandish persona and the latest technology to do just that.

I had the pleasure of sitting down with Boyer and his technology assistant Katie Pritchard for a Google+ Hangout  in which we discussed topics ranging from the backstory of The Plaid Avenger, to the innovative uses of technology in the course, to the future of higher education. You can view the video below and see a summary of some of the main points at the bottom of the page.

While in true Plaid Avenger style, Boyer spoke passionately about many topics of relevance to the higher education landscape, some of the highlights of the session included an explanation of the evolution of The Plaid avenger persona, The Plaid Avenger World Regions Textbook, innovative new uses of technology in the classroom, MOOCs, and the future of higher education.

Boyer explained the conscious decision he made approximately five years ago to developed The Plaid Avenger character as a means of competing with the barrage of highly engaging media that students are constantly receiving. Noting that students are constantly tied in to their portable devices and have access to all the information in the world, Boyer saw a need to allow his inner passion for his subject area to be expressed in the most outspoken, yet inviting way possible. In that way, The Plaid Avenger was born as a spoof which conflates the image of the stodgy old professor and super spies like James Bond. Boyer uses the outlandish personality to keep his courses entertaining and engaging while still focusing on rich academic content, such as that contained in The Plaid Avenger textbook.

When approached about writing a textbook, Boyer was initially hesitant, not wanting to create "another" $250 monstrosity that wasn’t particularly useful or interesting. He chose instead to piggyback the effort off of his then-in-the works graphic novel series as a way of creating visually interesting and engaging texts that would be more widely read and disseminated. The Plaid Avenger textbook consists of a series of graphic novels which each focuses on a specific world region or global issue. An e-book version of the text is currently in the works that will be comprised of individually purchasable chapters so that instructors in higher ed and high schools can remix their curriculum to incorporate text and media from a variety of sources. This concept fits with Boyer’s ideology that education should be adaptable by individual instructors and should incorporate a wide array of media that is both freely available online and for purchase at reasonable cost.

Discussing the 3,000 student course that Boyer teaches each fall, his passion for his craft and his super human focus and creativity were evident. While acknowledging that it is challenging to interact with so many students, Boyer and his teaching assistants (he has three TAs in addition to Pritchard) make use of the latest technologies to engage students in the classroom (Skype), in "Live Online Office Hours" (UStream), and in their assignments (Twitter and as forum moderators). In every way possible, Boyer attempts to engage his students through every medium and channel and to make their interacting with him and the TAs as easy as possible. He believes that, in some ways, the technologically mediated nature of the course allows some student s to participate who would not normally. This increased level of engagement is one of the aspects of education that Boyer values most, and his biggest criticism of MOOCs.

Boyer is not sold on the idea of MOOCs and took exception when I noted the irony in the fact that he essentially teaches the face-to-face equivalent of a MOOC. His argument was that he is a firm believer that all education must be personally interactive. While he does see enormous potential in the dissemination of free information and thinks that MOOCs could evolve to be something closer to what his view of education is, he does not believe that they currently embody enough interpersonal interaction to justify their popularity. However, he may be piloting just such an innovative course in the near future that brings personal interaction to a MOOC-like format. Stay tuned.

In addition to these, there were a good number of other topics covered in the interview including tips for instructors looking to incorporate more technology into their own classrooms. While The Plaid Avenger character may be intended as a spoof on the stoic academic and the super spy, he really has evolved into a higher ed superhero because of his incredible energy and willingness to boldly go where few educators have gone before – into an exciting and innovative world of technology aided and engaging education, even in massive classes. Boyer has used his creativity to take his teaching to a new level and demonstrates that there is hope in even the most challenging of classes to use technology to engage students in ways that couldn’t even have been imagined a few years ago.

Boyer has graciously shared much of the information about his courses, the use of technology in the classroom, his textbook, and The Plaid Avenger’s "Plaidcasts" on world events on his websites The John Boyer.com and The Plaid Avenger.com.

Thanks to John Boyer and Katie Pritchard for Hanging Out with me.

I look forward to reader feedback, comments and questions on Google+ and Twitter which I will be sure to pass along to The Plaid Avenger.