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. Continue reading “Reflections on #OpenLearning17”

Some Keywords: Access, Redlining and Divides

short handled brooms

Today is March 8 – International Women’s Day, which is being marked in the US by the #Daywithoutawoman campaign. I’ve struggled to get clarity on my own stance here — I’m especially sensitive to the point that striking is a privilege not everyone enjoys and have settled for the following demonstrations of solidarity: I’m wearing red (glasses), only spending money at my favorite local businesses owned by women, (mostly) staying off social media, reminding the world that we still / will always deserve equal pay and paid family leave, and holding off until tomorrow to post this.

Continue reading “Some Keywords: Access, Redlining and Divides”

The (medium) Hard Work of Open

Long Trail

My what a couple of weeks it’s been….So much anticipation, trepidation, incredulity, outrage, sorrow….resolve…

No, I’m not talking about #OpenLearning17. The course launch last week provided a wonderfully affirming forum for engaging with the forces of enlightenment.  Laura Gogia’s masterful facilitation of a Twitter Journal Club (#TJC17) on Friday brought folks together around a close reading of Jeffrey Pomerantz’ and Robin Peek’s Fifty Shades of Open, and through Twitter magic and generosity Jeffrey Pomerantz was able to participate in the discussion. Some of us even carried the conversation further by annotating it on . And because the #TJC17was open and coincided with the annual AAC&U conference in San Francisco, conference participants could join the fun and those of us who were not physically in attendance could share in some of the buzz generated by the big gathering.

Continue reading “The (medium) Hard Work of Open”

Time for Co-Learning

The world within my hands – Capture Queen (2007) Flickr: Licensed by Creative Commons 2.0

It’s week thirteen of the semester and I no longer pretend I’m going to catch up. Read, make, watch and blog half of what I want to for Connected Courses? Revise and submit the Belyaev fox paper? Pick up the threads of chapter four of Space Dogs? Nope. Not going to happen.

Because when you teach two or more connected courses that is just about all you do (besides the committee work and administrivia that are as inescapable as research hours are elusive). I am not complaining. I love teaching this way. In fact I was enormously relieved to hear Howard Rheingold emphasize during one of the #ccourses Webinars this week that engaging students in co-learning using a networked environment just takes time. This has certainly been my experience, but I think until now a piece of me thought that I was missing something — that because I spend hours and hours thinking about and with my students I must be doing something wrong. I’ve just been teaching this way for a year or so. Maybe more practice, more experience will make me more efficient, better able to balance all of the parts of my job?

Before I taught this way I did have some semblance of balance between teaching and research. I have always loved the classroom, but I used to see it as a physical space where I met students two or three times a week. I prepped for class, taught class, graded and returned papers. Remixed, recycled, repeated. Everything was fine — good even. I liked my students. They mostly liked me. They sent me nice notes telling me how much they enjoyed Russian history, asked me to write recommendations for them, invited me to their weddings, and asked me  to help translate the old letters they found in their grandmother’s attic. As faculty at a research 1 institution, I knew from day one that I needed to be a good teacher, but that I should not spend too much time teaching if I wanted to get tenure. After all, books and articles do not write themselves. Ask just about anyone in the humanities what they need for their research, and I bet nearly everyone would put “time” near the top of the list.

Connected courses dissolve the physical and temporal boundaries of the classroom in ways I believe benefit our students tremendously. They learn to research and synthesize their findings by writing about subjects that interest them. They create something meaningful to them and accessible to anyone with an internet connection. Over the semester their blog posts become more sophisticated — the writing improves, they become more adept at finding and analyzing high-value sources, they learn and model collegial dialogue about their findings by commenting on each others’ work, they curate their content more expertly and seek out feedback on it, they interact with the instructor and the editorial team as co-curators and co-learners, because we all share in the creation, presentation, and maintenance of the weekly digest that is our motherblog. By the time the course ends, they have a blog of their own that illustrates their skills in historical analysis and demonstrates their understanding of the key developments in Soviet History (or the Deep History of Domestication, or historiography….). In addition, students on the editorial team gain experience in peer-to-peer mentoring (on line and during class), and proficiency curating content for a fairly complex site.

Most of this happens outside the 150 minutes we spend together in class each week. And whereas in the old model I assumed that students worked harder (and spent more time) on the course than I did, teaching a connected course requires that we be more equally invested. It’s an investment I’m happy to make. I look forward to responding to weekly posts in a way that I never did for reflection papers or essays. I am energized by working collaboratively with students on their research projects using shared documents on GoogleDrive. Because the docs are always there I can comment and respond to questions on them anytime. If I see that the student is online when I am we can chat about their project. I can put them in touch with each other and they can point me toward shared concerns and challenges. When someone posts about a topic I find interesting or troubling I can find related material or another source and include it with my comments. And when the discussion in a comment thread really takes off I can stay up and chime in — or just watch.

Being connected with the editorial team also makes for some terrific interactions — usually late in the evening — when we meet each other in our shared folder and make curatorial decisions for the weekly digest. What did you like about this post? Which image do you think will look best in the slider? Did you checkout the Pravda article he cited about the invasion of Afghanistan?

Making the motherblog the class keeps us all engaged with the content and each other much more consistently over the week than the traditional formula of 2 meetings/week + written work=class. Which is wonderful and valuable. But there are obvious tradeoffs here for faculty who are supposed to be equally attentive to research and teaching. This semester, I have been able to re-calibrate some of the time I spend with my co-learners in ways I hope haven’t compromised our shared enterprise. But I’m not sure I can encourage my pre-tenure colleagues to join me in this synergistic connected space because it seems that the challenges of juggling these kinds of courses and producing the research needed for tenure could be overwhelming.

Obviously there are some larger issues in play here — the rewards / incentive structures for faculty at research institutions, the two-tier system of tenure-track and adjunct / part-time faculty, the broader challenges of this nugget from last nights #ccourses webinar:

But I have to think we can make this work, that there is a win-win here for students and faculty, and for our institutions as well. I need help figuring this piece out. How do we develop incentives for faculty to embrace co-learning modalities? For some of us the uptick in student engagement and competence are reward enough. And here at Virginia Tech, Ralph Hall uses GoogleGlass to combine research on sustainability with teaching connected courses. Identifying more ways to integrate teaching and research definitely seems promising. But we also need something more. We’ve figured out how to empower students to leverage the amazing resources of networked learning environments. Now we need to find ways to support faculty, especially junior faculty, who want to embrace the connected courses / active co-learning model but also want and need to devote equal time to research. Thoughts anyone?

Thinking Animals – The “Why” for a New Connected Course

Rainbow Web
Rainbow Web by Jennifer Nish

My “why” for previous connected courses has centered on developing empathy (closeness) and analytical perspective (distance) for things that really matter. For me, those things include: people, animals, and an appreciation of the unique cultural contexts in which we relate to each other.

In an honors colloquium on domestication we worked to unpack the assumptions we have about what domestication is (answer: on ongoing multi-lateral interspecies relationship, rather than an event or engineering feat). We gained insight about how our historical assumptions condition our current experiences with real animals and left the course with a more robust analytical toolkit for moving those relationships forward.

Last fall I shifted my Soviet History course to a “100% class-sourced” model, by having students research and author blog posts for a weekly digest. Rather than trying to convey my understanding of the Soviet experience to them and then testing them on it, I helped them identify high quality research materials for topics and events that were interesting to them.  We produced a rich compendium of analytical posts in which students not only demonstrated competence with the research process, but, more importantly, developed an appreciation for historical contingency and cultural relativism. Studying a history steeped in negative stereotypes and a society that seems quite “foreign” on their own terms gave us a more constructive perspective on the contemporary political climate and an appreciation of our own cultural baggage.

I’ve been amazed and invigorated by the power of networked technologies to amplify the learning experience.  I still have a lot to learn and will continue to develop the two connected course models I currently have in play.  I am also looking ahead and thinking seriously about a course that would connect students and faculty from different campuses in the interdisciplinary field of animal studies. The why of that course is that relationships between humans and animals are fundamental, essential, but often unacknowledged or certainly unexamined aspects of our lives as social creatures embedded in historical contexts.  Animal studies, a developing academic field that mobilizes practitioners from the humanities, social sciences, natural sciences and applied fields to study our relationships with non-human animals in theory and in practice seems ideally suited for a connected course.  Such a course could bring together faculty with different areas of expertise,  practitioners outside the academy, and students at any level to create a dynamic web of inquiry, expertise and action.  I will be knocking on the doors I know exist shortly.  If yours isn’t one of them and you are interested, please let me know!

Your motherblog might need a (mostly invisible) spouse

Course blogs are everywhere these days. While Tumblr and instagram might be the “it” social media of the moment, a course blog’s suitability for exchanging ideas, presenting research, and engaging in an open, distributed conversation is hard to beat. Course blogs come in all shapes and sizes of course, but the format I’ve been using extensively this year came about with the help of Gardner Campbell. I’ve deployed it in a range of course settings, from seminars with six undergraduates to upper-level courses with thirty-eight. It has worked beautifully for helping new graduate students come to terms with historiography as well. Several people have asked me about the set-up, and although it can be explained with spoken words and hand motions, it will be easier to lay out here.  So what follows is partly a plug for this particular configuration and partly a “how-to” for those who want to try it themselves.

Why does a motherblog need a spouse?

Like many course blogs, this format uses a “motherblog” that syndicates posts from all of the contributors’ individual blogs. Each student has their own “childblog” which they can customize according to their own preferences. The student’s blog becomes an eportfolio of their work, a “deliverable” they can take away (and continue to build on) when the course ends. The motherblog aggregates the feeds from all members of the course in one easy to find and search place.

Mother Blog


 Child Blog


But how do you handle the comments?  One of the main advantages of having students blog is the amplification of the audience. Instead of completing an “assignment” for me (“Is that what you wanted?”), they are writing for a much more diverse and interesting audience — it includes me, but is mainly comprised of their classmates and anyone else who happens to be interested in what they have to say. Commenting gives us a chance to engage in a multilateral conversation about the substance of the posts over a few hours, several days, or the entire term. But since every student has her own blog, the comments on a particular post are going to be attached to the individual blog, rather than the course blog. (You can set the motherblog up so that comments on the syndicated posts appear on the course blog, but then they won’t be attached to the student’s blog.)  This means you have to click around and look for a conversation to join, which could be serendipitously fun, but might also be a pain in the neck.

The solution is a second blog that aggregates all of the comment feeds from the students’ blogs. I think of it as a (mostly invisible) spouse to the motherblog, because it does a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of pulling content together and pushing it forward. But like many spouses, it does this quietly and without much recognition. It will work just as hard as the motherblog, but never rise to a search engine’s attention.  This blog of the collected comments from all of the students’ blogs appears in an RSS feed on the mother blog. When someone goes to main website to see what’s been posted recently, the comments on those posts are visible on the front page as well.  Clicking on a post or an interesting comment will take you directly to the student blog you want to engage.

Comment feed on Mother Blog


Student Blog Post


  It’s elegant, functional, and not hard to set up:

1) Create and set-up your motherblog to aggregate the posts from all of your contributors. (If you don’t have access to a WordPress enterprise installation, you can use an RSS multiplier to get the similar kind of functionality as you have with the syndication application.)

2) Create another blog to do the same for the comments.

3) Syndicate the individual blogs to the comment blog:


4) Select the “comments” feed:


5) On the motherblog, pull the comment blog through the RSS feed and relabel the RSS feed as a comment feed:


6) Drag the “recent comments” widget on the mother blog to the “inactive” area of the dashboard:


7) Create a link to the comment blog on the motherblog (optional):


8) That’s it!

Russia-Ukraine-Crimea: Media, Social Media and the Experts

I am sure I’m not the only Russian historian who has been asked in recent days to field media queries about the unfolding crisis in “Russia/Ukraine/Crimea” (the shorthand itself suggests the confusion and conflation of history, geography and politics), and I am pretty sure I am not the only one who has demurred. Developments in Ukraine are unfolding with a bewildering speed that compounds a devilishly complex situation. People want to know what’s going on. They want to fix it. They want reassurance that this won’t get out of hand. I have no sound-bite-insights that can satisfy those desires, and I don’t want to make things worse by adding to the confusion and controversy surrounding nearly every aspect of the crisis.

In the space of two weeks we’ve seen the ouster of Victor Yanukovich, the formation of a new government in Ukraine, Russia’s occupation of the Crimean penninsula, rising alarm over Russia’s violation of international law and its own treaties, controversy about an appropriate response, and concern that the crisis will spread to other Post-Soviet spaces.  This morning’s announcement that Crimea will hold a referendum on March 16 to leave Ukraine and join Russia suggests that the next ten days could be even more unsettling than the last.

As a historian I don’t now-cast or armchair quarterback current events. But I can guide people to sources that will help them form their own understanding of what is happening. I’ve been spending significant time each day sifting through major news outlets, Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and the blogosphere in an effort to keep up with the crisis and pass the worthwhile nuggets on to friends and colleagues. This experience has given me some perspective on the perilous and empowering ways that the media and social media of our global community shape our lived experience and the history we are making.  The shelf-life of some of these resources may be brief, so I’ll keep the following recommendations and observations short:

1)  Traditional news outlets can obscure more than clarify.

Examples:  Stephen Cohen’s controversial defense of Putin’s actions on CNN and a New York Times op-ed connecting his agenda to nineteenth and twentieth-century Russian religious philosophers on March 3.

2) The magic of the internet puts good (clear, detailed, thoughtful) analysis and background at your fingertips if you know where to look:

Examples: Charles King’s background interview on Crimea on HNN and the fine analysis of how history has shaped the current crisis in “Ukraine, Putin and the West,” published in N+1 on March 4.  There are several good posts on Sean’s Russia Blog as well.

3) Yes, Virginia, there are experts on Ukraine, and we should read what they have to say.

Examples: Ukraine Scholars of North America brings together eleven prominent social scientists working in the US and Canada. William Risch, (Georgia College) has been exceptional in his efforts to collect and collate information through the Facebook group he administers (Euromaidan News in English) and his chronicling of the Euromaiden protests.

4) As the previous two items suggest, social media are key.  They provide a window into events as they unfold, they allow for the immediate dissemination of information and ideas, they put people in touch with each other, and they shape as much as they present the story.

Other examples:

Buzzfeed of people in Crimea taking selfies with Russian soldiers.

The Twitter hashtag “Россия своих не бросает” (“Russia won’t abandon its own”) originated in Russia as a way to galvanize support for annexing Crimea but is also used by anti-Russian groups to mock that effort and deride the authenticity of the campaign.

A volatile and complicated crisis such as this defies generalizations and easy answers. But that shouldn’t be an excuse to embrace simplistic explanations, or let confusion turn to apathy.  Let’s use our collective expertise and the power of crowd-sourced intelligence and analysis to do what we can to keep this from being another Syria.  Let’s not let The Onion have the last word.