It started as a joke. Professors from the virtual campus at HACC, Central Pennsylvania’s Community College, were brainstorming creative ideas for new interdisciplinary courses when someone said, “It’s not like we could do a zombie course.” Or could they? It was the ideal subject for studying from a wide range of perspectives—in fact, there were so many possibilities for collaboration that the course grew to include eight faculty members across five disciplines and seven different specialties. “Zombies in Contemporary Culture” was born, a groundbreaking experiment in academic teamwork made possible by blended learning.
Cross-faculty Collaboration Was a Critical Barrier to Overcome
Forget zombies. What was really frightening about the course was the prospect of such a broad collaboration. “One of my colleagues jokingly suggested that trying to get eight professors to work together would be like herding cats,” laughs Dr. JuliaGrace Jester, Interim Department Chair of Social Sciences at HACC.
“As a group, we had to make all of the decisions for the class, plan out all of the assignments and discuss how the course should look. It was really pushing the limits of collaboration at HACC,” she says. “There’s never been a course like this here—usually only two teachers collaborate.”
As far as interdisciplinary classes go, the breadth of perspectives was awe-inspiring. The course examined zombies through the lens of psychology, philosophy, mythology, literature, media studies, biology, geographic information systems, and library studies.
The vast number of disciplines included meant that basic course organization, such as creating assignments and grading, had the potential to be a logistical nightmare.
Brightspace Provides a Forum for Teamwork
For Jason Beaudin, Assistant Professor of English and Humanities, Virtual Campus at HACC and another of the eight professors involved in the zombie collaboration, the big advantage of having an LMS like Brightspace in place was that it facilitated teamwork on exams and assignments.
“Rather than having a single test on microbiology, a single test on philosophy, et cetera, we were able to have faculty members work on specific questions in their subject area on their own time, and then compile them into a single exam,” says Beaudin. “To accomplish this, we took advantage of the Brightspace platform’s ability to allow multiple individuals to have editing privileges,” he adds. Each faculty member was able to contribute questions to a quiz and Brightspace handled distribution of the test questions to the class.
One Place for Everything Zombie
To unite all of the diverse disciplines under the zombie theme, the faculty paid special attention to customizing the Brightspace homepage. Enhanced visuals and customization allowed them to create a unique newspaper format. “Our Daily Brains” was a central location for all course content.
Zombie-specific navbars, themes, and custom links created a unified look and feel. Dr. Jester says, “The over-arching zombie theme helped students and faculty alike see the connections between discipline-specific lessons and get immersed in the narrative. In a face-to-face class we would never have been able to cover such a diverse amount of material. It would have been a shallow exploration of these topics.”
A Variety of Tools for a Variety of Teaching Styles
Another advantage of Brightspace is the sheer number of teaching tools available. Each professor was able to find a comfort zone—a way to use the platform that best suited his or her personal style.
The course consisted of written lessons, recorded lessons, Prezi lectures and iTunes podcasts, all embedded in Brightspace. Face-to-face lectures were augmented by a simultaneous virtual classroom space, moderated by a faculty member. Professors followed student progress through the Gradebook tool, the Dropbox tool, and the View Progress tool, all on Brightspace, as well as during the usual student-teacher class meetings.
How did the extreme use of technology impact the class? Dr. Jester believes it actually boosted student engagement: “By changing up the format of the lessons it didn’t feel repetitive and the variety really kept them interested.”
“We are eight professors at different campuses on totally different schedules and so we had to be creative. We really pushed the limits of technology. Brightspace gave us a central place to work on the course, even at the same time.”
Dr. JuliaGrace Jester, Interim Department Chair of Social Sciences HACC, Central Pennsylvania’s Community College
An “Unimaginable” Collaboration Sets a New Standard
Although there were skeptics at the outset, the Zombie course successfully challenged the limits of interdisciplinary courses. “We’ve presented at several conferences on how to collaborate with so many professors in an effective way. If trying to get eight professors to work together is like herding cats, then we managed to herd cats very successfully,” says Dr. Jester.
Better Teaching has a Ripple Effect throughout the College
For all eight professors, the Zombie course was a chance to experiment with online tools and discover fresh ways of engaging with students. Dr. Jester says, “We took the lessons we learned from this class to our own classes in our own areas and made changes.” In this way, positive results of the Zombie collaboration are being enjoyed throughout the college.
She explains how it made them better teachers: “Honestly, you can deliver your own classes over and over again and never try new things. This course opened us up to new ways to reach students. We all took away something that will make us better teachers.”
Great Collaboration Inspires More of the Same
What more might be achieved with further large scale interdisciplinary collaborations? Faculty members at the virtual campus at HACC are eager to find out. The success of the Zombie course has inspired plans for similar courses. Subject suggestions include post-apocalypse and post-humanism.
Says Beaudin, “Once you’re a part of something like this class, it’s impossible to stop thinking about other exciting innovations that can be used to improve the educational experience.”