Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Rating Open Learning Sites

Bryce Bunting's comment on my last post asked about the potential impact of open-learning sites for faculty roles and the traditional practices of higher education. There are few more important questions out there right now. The economy and the shortcomings of higher ed make it seem like colleges and universities 20 years in the future may be radically different than they are today. (This is not necessarily a bad thing, though there are no guarantees that higher ed will be better--it could become much worse at supporting the sorts of learning that lead to economic well-being, civic engagement, and an ability to face up to the big questions of life.)

If open learning sites are going to be significant players in remaking higher ed, it seems they would need to have four characteristics:
  1. A wide range of content, put together in useful chunks. (A whole semester's course in one file--too much. One primary document--too little.)
  2. A structure that makes the site easily searchable, and useful for the expected audience. Faculty want different things than students from sites like these. Faculty may want to select content to spur conversation; students to provide answers to questions. (At least if the use of current online resources is any guide.)
  3. An acknowledgment that much of the learning that takes place in higher ed happens outside of the formal curriculum. The sites need to be amenable to use by staff and administrators, and the content needs to be separable from individual courses.
  4. The potential for change. Do the mission, content, and organization of the site support active learning? Does the site attend to the ways that learning takes place out of class? Is it possible to craft new approaches to the curriculum, or to the whole institution from the site? If so, then they have a high potential for change. If not, then they are nothing more than online versions of textbooks--a good thing to be sure, but not great.
Over the next few weeks I'll be rating open learning sites. If you know of some that you would like to have me look at, or even better, if you'd like to rate some yourself, let me know.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Front-loading faculty work

In a recent exchange on the value of on-line repositories of learning modules (like MIT's OpenCourseWare or Rice's Connexions) Michael Bassis, Westminster's President wrote that were he teaching sociology, he would use these sites as a source of content, so that he could use more of his time to facilitate learning, especially by mentoring students.

His ideas got me thinking about how regular use of sites like this would change faculty roles, and what could be done to the structure of higher ed to make possible those sorts of changes (and the improvement of learning that they promise).

I'm particularly interested in the structural changes that would make all sorts of active learning more likely, not just the use of digital repositories. It occurs to me that many of these reforms (service-learning, problem-based learning, learning communities, building a course from a digital repository) shift a substantial amount of faculty work from during the semester to before the semester begins. You have to build partnerships, design complex problems, mesh syllabi, discover the electronic resources well before the first day of class.

If it is true that active learning requires much more advanced preparation, then one thing higher ed could do is change the calendar, so that faculty are present on campus for a month before fall semester begins (not three days as is the case at Westminster), and that they have a month between the end of fall and the beginning of winter semester. Anything less means that faculty exploring active learning methods are doing it on the fly, and that they are tempted to fall back into lecture/discussion at the the first sign of real difficulty.

Defending the classroom: thinking and passion

A friend and former student Derek Bitter posted a comment to my previous thoughts on the classroom. He is a serious reader, and a grad student at St. John's College, one of the few places in America whose curriculum focuses on close reading and discussion of the Canon. In response to my question about defending the classroom he wrote:

Many of these educational reforms, or additions is really what they are, will teach students to do certain things. And so I think what needs to be defended about the classroom is that it is a place, but not the only one or the main one, where students are taught to think. Not about anything specific, but just to think. Whether or not this happens is another topic, but classrooms should be seen as a place where students learn to think and find that it is a worthwhile thing to do.

I love this defense of the value of thinking in the classroom. I'm particularly taken with its unadorned praise of thinking--not "critical thinking" or "integrative thinking," just thinking. (This is not to say that all education ought to be about thinking, just that there ought to be a place whose purpose is to do that.)

Another part of the classroom that deserves defense is the way that it can be home to what Westminster calls in its Core Values "Impassioned Teaching." In my experience, teaching that includes passion (or learning provoked by it) can flourish in the classroom, where the power of ideas and personality get focused. I've done a lot of "supporting learning" in my day--service-learning, problem-based learning, student-led discussions, etc. But the place where passion joins them is in the classroom, where eloquence can join wisdom and result in something inspired. (Which is something that, for all their virtues, most educational reforms can't produce.)