Open on the Edges and in the Middle

Kerstin (aka Ella T.) "Open Hexagon Twist Only"
Kerstin (aka Ella T.) “Open Hexagon Twist Only”

Yesterday Steve Greenlaw  ( @stevegreenla ) asked me  why a “typical faculty member” who teaches and pursues their own research might get involved in Open Education.  His question was a tad disingenuous, of course.  We know that the “typical” faculty member is as much a fiction as the typical student.  But his invitation to explain why I continue to explore and embrace various modalities of open learning is one I am happy to accept.

Over the last few years, as I’ve re-imagined the kind of intellectual work we do in our classrooms, I’ve seen how making incremental changes can first amplify and then transform the learning experience for students and faculty.  By embracing networking as both a metaphor and a practice for having students learn in conversation with openly accessible high value source materials as well as with me and with each other, I’ve been able to cultivate broader and more dynamic communities of learners and have discovered new opportunities to explore and grow as a teacher, a researcher and a practitioner of digital history and the digital humanities. It’s true, I did have plenty to do before I started down this road, but the extra time I spend learning how to use new tools ( is coming to my graduate pedagogy class this semester), building websites, upgrading a legacy OER, and engaging with my students’ work outside the regular class time, is time well spent. It comes back to me many times over in the form of higher quality engagement with lively minds, the gratitude of colleagues all over the country (for keeping a popular resource accessible ) and membership in richer, more diverse, and more robust intellectual communities.

Susan Albertine has offered us some timely reflections on how the Open Learning cMOOC  might advance the cause of “Mind Liberating Education,” — her wonderful characterization of the purpose of general education at all levels of higher ed in the twenty-first century.  The  Faculty Collaboratives are a national endeavor and teams in different states have adopted a range of strategies, but the Virginia group is the only one to place a web-based social learning project at the core of its program.  Susan hopes the Open Learning cMOOC will facilitate cross-pollination between the community of gen ed reformers and advocates for open education. I see that possibility as not just desirable, but natural and necessary for the ultimate success of the whole enterprise (empowering 21st-century students with the skills, knowledge, experiences they need to make their way and lead in a times of often mind-bending change and complexity).

I was on research leave working on a book about space dogs in the fall, and in the process of re-engaging my various teaching communities over the last few weeks have realized how inter-connected various practices and communities are, and how one open practice leads to another. This semester I am teaching two openly accessible networked courses — an upper-level Soviet History course, where students collectively source the majority of the content, and Contemporary Pedagogy, a course for graduate students developed by Shelli Fowler that invites future faculty to develop or refine their own teaching praxis grounded in inclusive and critical pedagogies. Inspiration for the networked version of the Soviet course came from a pilot project where students blogged and published their research projects on the web in an honors colloquium on Deep History and Domestication.  That experience brought me to Gardner Campbell’s New Media Seminar — first as a student, and then as the seminar facilitator.

So there’s been this nice synergy between networked learning / open ed and my expertise as a Russian historian with evolving interests in environmental history and animal studies from the beginning. That overlap proved crucial when I was asked to help salvage Seventeen Moments in Soviet History, a multi-media digital repository of primary materials with subtitles and translations developed by James von Geldern and Lewis Siegelbaum more than fifteen years ago. After hackers destroyed the site in January 2015, we worked to move it to an open source platform (WordPress), launching the new site that August. Last November the site had more than 9,000  30-day active users (with nearly 500,000 page views), which would suggest that a lot of students studying Soviet history use the archive in some fashion. This free to use, freely accessible resource exemplifies the goodness of open: Faculty rely on it to give students a multi-dimensional view of a society about which students know little and often presume much. To watch clips of popular Soviet movies or listen to songs — with expertly rendered subtitles — is to experience the power of openness and accessibility, and to gain insight into a culture and society that might be otherwise opaque to many.

There’s another unexpected, yet strangely natural, and very rewarding aspect of the open learning path that I want to note before signing off, namely the opportunities to develop as a teacher and as a student and to meet new people and engage with new communities of practice. After twenty years of university teaching, the opportunity to embrace the roll of learner again has been very invigorating.  The New Media Seminar served as my gateway drug, and I have also participated in previous cMOOCs. Realistically, helping facilitate the Open Learning cMOOC will keep me pretty busy this semester, but I hope I can at least dabble in a digital story-telling course on Networked Narratives  that Alan Levine and Mia Zamora are directing.

The semester promises to be full and rich, with lots of open. I hope when we get to the end of the Open Learning syllabus I will be (even more) open to new opportunities on the borders of the various domains I inhabit, that the middle, the core of my networked learning practices is more robust, and that our work has fulfilled Susan’s hopes for our faculty collaborative.

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