Using branching comics in college courses
Term papers are part of the old college tradition: writing the paper enables students to both acquire a deeper understanding of course concepts and demonstrate that understanding to the instructor. These days, however, it is too easy to for students to plagiarize or buy a paper, and overworked faculty can spend hours grading a stack of papers. At Comic-BEE, we think that having each student create a branching comic is a better approach for today’s learning environment. You can learn more about this idea, how it works, and read a testimonial from a college professor at our College Course page.
In this post I’ll try to answer the question, “But what does a branching comic assignment actually look like?” You could provide students with an initial starting point so they are all creating a comic on the same concept, or allow them to coming up with their own concept, based on the course materials. Just like in a paper, you’ll want to provide some structural guidance, such specifying a minimum number of scenes, how many endings and of what type (good, bad, or somewhere in between). And you can tell students to skip creating a lesson plan and start directly with the script.
But what does that really look like? I know cybersecurity best, so the examples below begin in the cybersecurity domain. Introductory, undergraduate cybersecurity course. Ask students to illustrate their understanding of a basic concept. For example, “Explain what social engineering is, using the point of view of a hacker tracking a user’s online presence or ‘digital footprints'”. Perhaps the hacker has already obtained one piece information from the victim and students must show what the hacker could do with that one piece and the social engineering tactics that could be used to get other information. If you prefer a defensive approach, ask students to illustrate various ways to protect information in a given threat scenario: what can they do protect against phishing, ransomware, or other threats that could affect them as individuals.
Graduate course on cybersecurity policy or risk management. Give students a scenario (MegaCompany in industry X), and ask them create a comic showing different choices the MegaCompany CEO could make to increase resiliency in the event of major incident or outage. They should consider options such as strategic investments in IT Infrastructure and security solutions, staffing & training (for everyone or selected work roles), or even business process choices the CEO of MegaCompany could make to comply with specific regulatory issues for industry X. [Yes, this is a thinly veiled opportunity for them to practice pitching to executives using business language!]
Mechanical, Electrical, or Computer Engineering. Assign students a specific “What If” scenario: given engineering goal Y and requirements X, describe the different design options, and demonstrate the possible outcomes (good and bad) of those options. You would need to determine those variables based on the specifics of your course, or maybe there’s a well known problem in that domain that you can adapt.
Ethics or Artificial Intelligence. Given situation S, and constraint C, what are possible ethical implications and outcomes of different responses to the situation? What are potential next steps for those choices, or potential downstream impacts or unintended consequences? Use classic situations and problems or use a current headline as the starting point for the student assignment.
Economics. Ask students to demonstrate the differences between various economic approaches in action, in an industry or a national economy–think of the beer drinking game often used to illustrate supply side economics. Or give students a scenario with specific parameters, and a starting economic situation and have them “world build” by showing potential governmental choices and the corresponding economic consequences and how they affect the life of everyday citizens.
Health sciences. A branching comic assignment allows students to illustrate specific treatment or pharmaceutical dosing strategies for an individual, addressing different specific patient concerns, contraindications, adverse reactions and health risk trade-offs. For policy courses, consider a larger, regional health issue that affects certain segments of the population.
Education or EdTech. In this domain, you certainly do want students to create a lesson plan as part of the assignment. That could be an early deliverable: students export their lesson plan and submit the Word document for review, or groups could critique each other’s lesson plans. Understanding how well the completed comic aligns with the stated learning objectives would be part of your review, as well as reviewing the breadth and story continuity represented by the choices and outcomes revealed in the final comic.
Another approach is to ask each student to create a comic that demonstrates specifically the best outcome and the worst outcome for a specific problem, and what steps must be taken to reach those outcomes. Essentially, to “what-if” the problem so you are able to determine if students understand the cause and effect of specific decisions and correctly construct the steps to reach a given outcome.
Networking course. The assignment could be about configuration options in the networking technology related to the course. Students create a story showing both the worst-case scenario (and how the networking tech is incorrectly configured) and the best-case scenario (and what the correct configuration is) and show both technical and business impacts of each scenario.
Similarly in engineering courses, students could illustrate possible divergent outcomes that would result if a specific (assigned) design decision or requirement were altered. For history or social studies course, what if a specific event had not occurred? What possible choices would then exist?  Which choices lead to better outcomes, and which to worse outcomes?  Are there outcomes that are value neutral compared to today? There are many questions that could be explored, depending on the course syllabus and the parameters of your assignment.
Students send you a link to their comic, and that’s what you read and evaluate. And the best thing about these comic assignments? Should a student create a really good comic, it could become an introductory curricular material for the next time you teach that course!
If you have more questions about how you could use branching comic assignments in your course, please contact us directly. If you are ready to start, please use this form to register your course with Comic-BEE.