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.

1 comment:

Bryce said...

Might open source learning sites be catering to an audience altogether different from students and faculty already working or learning at universities?

I think you're right about the fact that there is an absence of good pedagogy in most of the materials available through the sites. So, they are a bad alternative to what might happen in a live classroom setting.

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.

It seems like open source learning folks need to be more clear about what niche their work fills and who it is for.