Core Course: Now and the Future

By Crown College Provost Manel Camps

“Core can be considered as the first step toward the building of an intellectual community that nurtures our student’s sense of belonging, promotes self-efficacy, and ensures that our students have the intellectual tools they need to succeed in college.“

An intellectual community needs a theme to focus its research and discussion. In Crown’s case the theme is Ethical and Societal Implications of Emerging Technologies. Such a community also needs a diversity of areas of interest. A productive dialog across our students’ range of interests is modeled and lead by our great faculty team. Collectively, our faculty contributes deep knowledge in the humanities (philosophy, literature, history), with additional expertise in ethics, transhumanism, social activism, broadcasting media, politics/public service, cross-cultural communication, social documentation, and drama. For a community, a social dimension is the glue that keeps it together. We try to foster this social dimension in two ways: through co-curricular activities open to all students such as plenaries, focus groups, ethics bowls and the Sci-Fi contest award ceremony and also by having students work in small (3-5 student) groups on some of their assignments and on their research projects so that they get to know each other.

We worked hard to combine different pedagogical approaches and areas of expertise to meet the complex goals of Core. We have put together a number of modules that provide our students with the tools they need to effectively work through the material such as some understanding of ethical systems, epistemology (how we know what we think we know), and how to approach complex texts. Additional modules walk our students through how technologies are shaping our society. These include a module on transhumanism, i.e. on the use of technologies to overcome our biological limitations; another one on the current technological revolution, with the confluence of artificial intelligence, social media, and streaming; a third module on globalization; and one last module covering the Anthropocene, i.e. how human activity is altering our planet and where that leaves us.

Guiding principles

In the process of designing our Core offering, we have come up with a number of principles that guide our curricular design. They boil down to the five points below:

Our goal is to empower our students as active agents in their own training:
While we follow a narrative and work on texts to give our students some conceptual language and background about our theme, but this class is not about the content (historical, intellectual or technical) but about giving our students the tools to work with the original material themselves. Research (just as life itself) is about making choices. This takes courage and a vision. Therefore, we give our students as many options and opportunities for ownership of their learning as we can. This includes having groups of students introduce assigned readings to the rest of the class, having students working on a group project on a topic of their choice, and encouraging our students to select and share articles from the press.

Learning depends on adequate scaffolding:
While we try to give our students as much agency as possible in their own training, we are also acutely aware of the fact that effective teaching requires a lot of scaffolding. During the first two weeks, we give our students the tools they need to work through the material. This includes discussion of ethical approaches, of critical approaches (ways to question what you think you know), and of strategies for approaching difficult texts. We then build on this foundation through additional readings and videos, in-class activities, assignments, and meetings with individual groups to follow up on the group project. The texts and assignments are carefully designed to meet the classes’ learning objectives. In addition to in-class activities we also have a series of co-curricular activities (focus groups, plenaries, ethics bowls, etc.) that provide additional structure (see next paragraph).

Learning is about being an active participant the world you live in:
In the tradition of the liberal arts education, we present learning not as content you need to absorb to pass an exam, but a life-long habit that helps you understand the world you live in. To that end, we strive to tie the older texts we read to their relevance to today’s world and intentionally cover topics that are directly impacting our student’s lives. Examples of these topics include surveillance capitalism, artificial intelligence, globalization, and global warming. For our students’ projects, we use the Covid-19 pandemic as the lynchpin to tie the impact of emerging technologies to our student’s immediate experience. Again to emphasize the connection between the class and current events, we’ll have a politics night a week before the election to discuss the relevance of this historic election. Core also emphasizes the intimate connection between learning (acquisition of knowledge) and ethics (how do you act based on what you know), the fact that we all have choices to make and should therefore be active participants in shaping our world.

Core is one class, regardless of which instructor teaches your section:
Core is delivered in small sections (30 students/section) led by one instructor. We strive to build a community that goes beyond each individual section. In the summer, through a series of pre-recorded videos, we introduce our students to all our faculty, and once Core starts each of our faculty members shares a recording with a short lecture on their favorite topic to all the students in Core. We give students the opportunity to follow up on any of these lectures (i.e. with any instructor), in what we call Focus groups. The co-curricular activities mentioned above also bring students from different sections together.

Stretched experience:
We think that for transferrable skills such as the ones we strive to promote in core, the length of the period of training is as important as the total number of hours. Students need time to process information and make intellectual and social connections. That is the reason we try to stretch Core as much as possible. We get our students started early through a summer assignment and in Winter, we provide our students with opportunities to continue to build on different aspects of Core: performing a professionally-directed play based on one of the readings seen in core (Orwell’s 1984 or Capek’s RUR), producing a podcast based on our student’s research projects, contributing to our Center for Applied Ethics and Values of Emerging Technologies website the form of blogs and opinion pieces, or immerse themselves in the world of Sci-Fi. Some of these winter classes also fulfill the critical role of sharing our student’s work with a broader audience, effectively modelling scholarship while making our students familiar with different genres and models of communication.

Concluding remarks

We have come a long way toward the creation of a Core program that combines the expertise of our faculty team in a way that is dynamic, engaging and empowering to our students. We look forward to continuing to build on our Core program and to effectively incorporate our students’ work with our faculty into Crown’s long-term goal of becoming a center of reference for the study of the implications of emerging technologies.

We are pioneers on campus in our collaborative approach to Core and on our emphasis on multimodal communication. We have also piloted programs to incorporate alumni participation into Core teaching and to support our international students.

Core focuses on analytical reading and critical thinking, providing the foundation for a longer academic literacy program. Additional training in writing is provided through classes offered by the writing program and in disciplinary communications classes offered by the various departments teaching our student’s individual majors. Other transferable skills such as problem-solving skills, leadership skills, digital literacy, effective communication, and effective teamwork are supported through a variety of Crown Classes, which also provide our students with general education credits they need to complete their graduation requirements. Examples of these classes include: Crown 90, 92 (Entrepreneurship and Social and Creative Entrepreneurship); two classes and that are linked to a service learning class: Crown 95 (Local Business Support Program); Crown 86 (Storytelling in a Digital Age), Crown 88 (Computational Futurology), and Crown98 (Digital Podcasting) and Crown 80 (Science Fictions). These classes are possible because of generous annual donations from our alumni, thank you!

I’d like to finish by letting our students speak for themselves. First, I’d like to share the stories that won our first Sci-Fi contest 2018 Sci-Fi Contest Winning Stories; here you can see how creatively and boldly our students work through their anxieties about our collective future. I would also like to include three comments that students submitted in their anonymous evaluations of their Core learning experience last year (2019-20) and that encourage us to continue to provide a learning experience of the highest quality: (1) “Give [the instructor] a raise, because her hard work, and dedication is shown through her teaching. She genuinely cares about everybody, and honestly have had a great experience thus far.” (2) “The course was really fun, I learned a great amount and once again there was just so many interesting topics we covered. I really loved when we would have open class discussions that give you a chance to voice your opinion and give your reasoning, as well as hear other people’s. It’s really interesting to see how people’s perspectives differ (…) the class has got me to look at things in a whole new way now.” (3) “Probably the best professor I have ever had!”