Reflections on #OpenLearning17

How will your experience in #OpenLearning affect your teaching practice or scholarship? Why?

#OpenLearning17 has provided lots of inspiration for making my teaching practices more open and accessible. The course has also helped me better understand some of the choices I’ve made about the learning environment I want to create with my students.  I have three partially written posts about specific aspects of the course and have accepted the fact that I’m not going to finish them until after the semester is over.  For now, I want to throw out what I think are three of my main takeaways:

#1: What’s in a Name? I am going to be less concerned about definitions and more attentive to what works and why. At the beginning of the semester I thought I’d come away with a coherent working definition of Open Learning. But (sort of) watching the recent debates about the definition of “Open Pedagogy” has led me to think we should advocate for a catholic use of Open and not insist on one gold star definition that gets held up as the new orthodoxy.
Having said that, in my own practice I am shifting away from thinking about what I do as “Open Pedagogy” in favor of “Open Educational Practices,” which as Catherine Cronin points out, defines a space and mode for learning rather than focusing on the teacher-student binary. I think this will help me identify more opportunities for collaborative learning with undergrads and further the mission of GEDI to help future faculty develop a more thoughtful and holistic approach to the classroom.

#2: The Kids Are Alright. I want to be more attentive to supporting connections between the work we do in the classroom (taking a broad view of the “classroom” as any F2F, hybrid, or on-line space that facilitates interaction)  and the “real world.” That means becoming more mindful of the opportunities I have to cultivate dispositions that lead to critical engagement with social and political context.  I’m drawing inspiration here not just from #Openlearning17 but from recent examples of  students using their expertise, social networks, participatory cultures and critical faculties to advocate for educational spaces open to a meaningful exchange of ideas and speaking truth to power. These three instances remind me that defending freedom of expression and the right to interrogate falsely-claimed authority is something we must continue to advocate for — actively, all the time.

VT Grate Teach-in Flyer – Created by S. J. Fried

Example 1) The Graduate Academy of Teaching Excellence (VT Grate) organized an evening teach-in in support of the March For Science, creating  a community space to learn, teach and talk about what “Valuing Knowledge” means in different contexts. The event was linked to a satellite March for Science, which was well-supported by the local community as well as the university community. But it was graduate students who took the lead to mobilize their network and create a space for the teach-in.

Example 2) One of the current administration’s key advisors on National Security is Sebastian Gorka, who bills himself as an expert on terrorism in general and combatting Islamic extremism in particular.  Gorka’s credentials and expertise have been criticized by senior academics, but those critiques, so far, have not dislodged him. Last week, however, during a panel at Georgetown on “Fake News,” Gorka  was undone by undergraduates who posed questions about his association with an ultra-nationalist Hungarian organization, his anti-Muslim rhetoric, and his credibility as an expert on the Middle East, ( he does not speak Arabic nor has he spent significant time living or working in the region.) Unable to demur or bluff his way past his interlocutors, Gorka left the session.

Example 3) In the aftermath of recent demonstrations in Moscow led by Alexei Navalnyi, students in Russia faced stern warnings from their teachers and principals to refrain from participating in political protest and to embrace the “party line” on everything from Russia’s national security policy to corruption, the conflict in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea.  A series of videos have emerged, however that suggest that students have been paying attention and are aware of the context for the Putin administration’s actions. The transcript of one of these conversations (at a high school in Bryansk) suggests they are discerning analysts of real and “fake” news and are unlikely to accept the worldview offered by their teachers, regardless of the power differential.

In all three examples, but particularly this last one, I’m struck by how well students articulate the integrative and critical thinking that forms the framework of a liberal arts perspective and by the way they act on the ethical imperative to seek justice and do the right thing. And in all three, but in the last two in particular, social media and participatory cultures played an essential role.

#3: An Open Mix: I remain committed to developing, maintaining and using OERs whenever possible and appropriate.  But I need to move past the student-faculty-textbook Bermuda triangle. I understand this is a serious issue, especially for basic skills courses (and as the parent of a college student I am well aware of the exorbitant fees publishers exact just for the rental of a basic statistics text.) But I think we’ll get farther faster if we take a more nuanced and individualized approach to the “textbook” problem.  For one thing the notion of a “standard text” is somewhat of a red herring in many fields.  At some level, it seems that “textbook” is a category that’s too broad. The bookstore (I think we still have one?) refers to all of the books we assign for a class as “textbooks,” but the marketing strategies and content of specific volumes varies dramatically. Not all books are “textbooks” — and textbook prices tend to be MUCH higher for STEM materials.

I’ve dedicated significant time and energy to saving and maintaining a major OER in my field (Soviet History) that is used by tens of thousands of people around the globe annually — most of them are students (like mine). Seventeen Moments in Soviet History provides the jumping off point and inspiration for a majority of the work we produce in my Soviet History course. Exploring this multi-media repository gives students a sense of the range of topics and material that are out there and encourages them to seek out other high value materials on the open web. It also saves them from having to purchase a primary source reader or document collection. However, to realize the LO’s I have set for the course and prepare students for work in the real world we need to use some good “not open” material as well.

Here are those goals:
*Develop skills in historical analysis
*Develop skills identifying, using and citing historical sources
*Develop an understanding of the key developments and dynamics of Soviet History

In  the classroom as in real life, historical sources come in all shapes, sizes and variations. Some are free to use and easy to access, while others are hard to find, difficult to translate, and still more difficult to use.  Developing an analytical framework involves synthesizing material from different sources and different kinds of sources. The Current Digest of the Soviet Press, for example, is a proprietary data base of translated news and journalism gleaned from the Soviet Press throughout the Cold War. The library has paid for the complete archive. It is behind a paywall. We use it extensively in my otherwise mostly “open” course. Why? 1) Because students are paying tuition that gives them access to these materials and not taking advantage of that seems wrong on every level; 2) Learning how to use a specialized database like the Current Digest or the Historical New York Times helps develop search and retrieval skills that can be transferred to other contexts; 3) Working with the Current Digest helps consolidate the content knowledge and narrative scaffolding one needs to make sense of a historical topic or time period; 4) Using open and proprietary materials and citing them focuses attention on what is open and what isn’t; 5) It accustoms us to the idea that sources are diverse in origin, type, etc.

Oh, I also have them buy a “textbook.” It’s a multi-authored work that covers Russian history from the eighth to the early twenty-first century. We use it in two other courses here as well (so if you buy it for one course you’ll be set for the others). It costs $20 new on Amazon. I might be able to find something “free” that would serve as a suitable “Open” alternative, but I doubt it. I love this text for it’s accessibility and sophistication — it’s got just the right balance of interpretation, narration and detail so that I can use sections of it to teach “historiography” (the history of historical interpretation), and students use it as a “net” / life line, reference or beginning point, depending on how they work and where they are with the material. The authors of this book are all distinguished scholars in a field that requires mastery of a lot of material that is extremely “foreign” and arcane to most American audiences. Their book provides a highly intelligent, interesting, and accessible entry to Russian history. I don’t think they should be expected to “give” that away just because other companies and authors are fleecing their constituencies. And at $20, this book is a huge bargain. Among the things I hope my students will consider is the “value” of the materials they use, because again, going forward in the real world, they will at some point have to pay for the media and literature they use to keep learning and to stay in touch with what’s going on in the world.

3 Replies to “Reflections on #OpenLearning17”

  1. What a thoughtful, detailed, and inspirational set of takeaways! Thank you. I hope to write a similar post soon, though “what have I learned from this experience?” is a very complicated question for me. But one must start somewhere…. I can only hope to create half the resource you’ve created here. I’m very grateful for all your contributions to this learning experience. I know I am not alone in feeling that way.

    1. “What I’ve learned” from this is complicated for me as well, and not all of it is coherent enough to put out here. I am both inspired by and concerned about the prospects of liberal learning, which makes it hard to come up with a cogent precis of where I’ve been and where we all might be headed.
      But with so many partially-written posts on my dashboard I decided it was worth at least putting something out there. As you say, it’s a place to start. The real challenge ahead, to my mind is how to fulfill the charge of the collaboratives project to “build capacity and a network of faculty.” Potential abounds.Easy answers, not so much.
      Thank you, Gardner for asking me to join this project. I’ve learned so much and hope to carry the experience forward to wherever the next adventure leads us. Thanks so much for your vision and leadership — it’s been absolutely essential and I’m counting on you to carry the beacon for the foreseeable future.

  2. As a librarian, I am zoning in on item #3, the open mix. Yes, yes, yes, use the library-provided resources for all the reasons you list AND add to that the hope that students might see that some information is only available with certain privileges, in this case their tuition dollars and current institutional affiliation. As you say, the mix of sources you include, open and proprietary, points to this privileged access versus access for all. And we could take it a step further to point out that your students at a state-funded, large, research institution have access to resources that students at a small private institution like mine do not. Mix away!

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