Friday, March 20, 2009

Open Source and Active Learning

My friend Bryce Bunting wrote the following in a comment on my long post about open source and active learning:

Maybe the value of open source learning sites is for learners that are not in a position to have the university experience. I'm thinking here of someone in a rural location who would love to attend a university class, but won't have that opportunity. For this type of learner, open learning might be the next best thing. To expect open learning to enhance what happens within the walls of a classroom, however, may not be realistic.

Bryce may be right. Given the recent widespread interest in open-source learning, though, it seems as if it will be an ever bigger part of the conversation about learning and higher ed. If that is the case, there are three potential implications:

1. the movement for open source learning trumps the movement for active learning and so open source gradually undermines interest in/need for campus-based learning. As a result more and more students become like the rural student Bryce writes about above. Traditional higher ed atrophies. (Of course this may happen anyway, for economic reasons. But my guess is that if the economy weakens traditional higher ed it will weaken the open source learning effrts too, most of which rely on either a for-profit model or the largesse of a traditional institution of higher ed.)

2. the movement towards active learning trumps open source learning, and so the real growth area in the future is for traditional higher ed to find a way to add active learning to open source learning in rural/isolated areas, or for non-traditional students.

3. active learning and open source learning become allies, or at least hit a rough balance. As a result campus-based learning finds better ways to use open source stuff in the classroom and curriculum, and open source learning does a better job of developing and providing access to active learning opportunities. Both sides win.

Right now the outcome is uncertain, so there is opportunity for campuses and entreprenuers to push the field in one way or another.

Learning the Local

There are two big ways to read the world. One is cosmopolitan--that the world is moving towards a big, polyglot culture where Bollywood films, hip-hop, Nike, European fashion, and Buddhism (or some other list of equally prominent stuff from around the globe) is all linked together.

The other is particularistic. There are two forms of particularism. In one, even though radically different things from around the world may be linked together, those links are limited to a small group of people who espouses them all. In the other, while the wealthy may assemble a cosmopolitan global mash-up culture, most people retain deep allegiances to their own intesely local cultures. They are loyal not to "Buddhism" but to their sangha. Not to "hip-hop" but to a couple of performers, or one club they prefer. (For me it is not "sushi" but the Sushi House Restaurant in American Fork, Utah.)

Cosmopolitanism has long been the metier of higher education. Think of the standard liberal arts curriculum--you read Plato and Kierkegaard and Dewey and Rorty, or you enact the same lab experiments that fellow students have for decades in universities across the world. Many schools have enshrined cosmopolitanism in their learning goals. Students will become "global citizens" or, at Westminster, develop "global consciousness."

But if I'm right, by enshrining cosmpolitanism we've overlooked a huge part of the world. Part of the problem is that particularism forces tough choices--which little culture should we teach? How can we get "coverage"? How can we have a "comprehensive" curriculum if we admit that there is no way to get our arms around it all?

Another challenge, though, has been that it is hard to get a good view of the local because it is, well, local. People come to understand the local by living it, not by studying it in an anthology.

But now there are ways to see and learn the local. Consider these two efforts. The Center for Neighborhood Technology is building the practices and relationships necessary for neighborhoods to understand and direct themselves. And EveryBlock is using powerful search algorithms to gather news on a neighborhood by neighborhood basis. If you live in an EveryBlock city you can log on and see exactly where crime takes place, or which restaurants got good health inspections, or which days of the week your neighbors are more likely to call for city services.

CNT and EveryBlock could be the basis of a curriculum, coupled with meaningful civic engagement, in which students could learn the local. If lots of the world is indeed local, then higher ed ought to take this opportunity seriously, as seriously as it takes its efforts to define and advance a global cosmopolitan culture.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Are open source learning sites useful for active learning?

Last month I promised to review some open source learning sites. 10 days ago I had the chance to try them out in my US History class. The take home for me: until these sites get their heads around learning, they aren't much help.

Last week I had a class session scheduled on violence in post-Civil War America. The objective of the class was to help students see how violence in the Reconstruction/Jim Crow South and in the American West provided insights into American culture and institutions. I wanted students to make the comparisons themselves by looking at visual evidence of violence in these regions. Or, I wanted to find some digital learning modules that would allow them to get the content outside of class while allowing us to do something more active in class. I'm an administrator, so I was preparing class the afternoon before it met--more lead time than I usually get.

I looked at three sites for anything that I could use in the class. My first visit was to YouTube, hoping for some excerpts of documentaries on the Indian Wars or Reconstruction violence. Lots of hits, many fewer videos actually on topic; only one--about Wounded Knee--that would add any value to class.

Since Academic Earth and MIT's OpenCourseWare have gotten tons of press, I tried them next. Academic Earth returned a series of lectures by Yale Historian David Blight on Reconstruction; OpenCourseWare gave me lecture outlines and a syllabus for a similar course. Now, if I'd have wanted my students to sit and watch someone else lecture, I could have assigned Blight's lecture. (It is literally that--an eminent and interesting historian lecturing to a Yale class.) Or if I wanted them to see pdf documents from another course, I could send them to MIT. But I didn't want either of those things.

There are two big problems with the stuff on Academic Earth and OpenCourseWare right now. First, they are in chunks too big to be of use for a single class session or to illustrate a single topic. Second, they have little interest in active learning. Instead, they imagine students out there somewhere who have the inclination to approach learning over the computer in the way that most educators today think doesn't work in the classroom. It is true that there are many people out there who are interested in the topics and are willing to learn this way. But by and large those aren't students already enrolled full-time in higher ed.

In the end I asked students to read the applicable chapters in the textbook. I gave them a link to the YouTube video. I copied two primary documents from Richard Hofstadter's American Violence: A Documentary History (1970). Then in class I set up a project that I hoped would actively engage students in the historical topic and in learning.

I divided the class into four groups--two for the history of the West, and two for the history of the South. Then I asked one group in the West and in the South to come up with a list of the five most important acts of violence in their region between 1864 and 1890. The other two groups I asked to come up with the five most important legal/political events in the regions. They could use any source of information at their disposal--the internet, the text, their classmates, me. They built two complicated timelines on the whiteboard, one for the West just above one for the South. And then I asked the question; "What do you see?" Few responses at first, but then more--some comparisons, some attempts at periodization, some errors, a couple of arguments. I gave them some primary documents--Black Codes from Mississippi 1865 and the text of the Dawes Act from 1887. More reading, discussion, and at the very end of class some generalizations about violence in American culture.

The class session wasn't earth-shattering. But it engaged every student, used four or five methods of learning, and focused on the objectives of the class session.

I'll go back to Academic Earth and OpenCourseWare. (I won't go back to the website for my textbook, which is hard to use and sparsely populated.) But until I find a course or even a lecture that matches the objectives of my course, I'm unlikely to give them much use. And I won't really be a convert until I'm convinced that these sites are as up-to-date on learning as they are on using technology.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Doing, Contemplating, and Becoming

This is a particularly pragmatic time in America (which is saying something, since the nation has always prided itself on its pragmatism). In higher education this means a turn towards "education as doing." Whether it is service-learning, undergraduate research, or any of another dozen reforms, hands-on learning is the rage in the classroom.

The focus on doing shows up in mission statements and institutional goals as well. Westminster, like most other institutions of higher ed, has campus-wide and program-specific learning goals. Most of them promise that students will be able to do certain things upon graduation--think critically, for example.

Recently the Chronicle of Higher Education reported that many more faculty members hope that their students will learn how to be "agents of social change" than who think that students ought to study the classics. The Chronicle article sets the debate up as one between "doing" and thinking, and then trots out the usual suspects to argue about whether the favor for social change is evidence of a leftward lean in higher education.

Who cares? The question isn't about the politics of doing in education, but instead its goals. After all, conservative institutions and liberal ones both try to distinguish themselves by highlighting how well their students do things.

This talk by Barry Schwartz on practical wisdom, and this article by David Loy on the intersection of social change and personal development, make the same point--that our mistake is to assume that you can either learn to do something or you can learn about it. Instead doing and contemplation have to go together. When they do, the result is competent people who are also good--moral, humble, brave, wise. Otherwise we develop either technocrats or narcissists. We've enough of both.