Back to School Not

I’m not going back to school. No one should. At least, not back to the way school used to be. We need to move forward. We need to do better than whatever we thought school was before the pandemic.

In 2004, I started leading traditional high school and university courses as Open-Source Learning networks. Participants co-created interdisciplinary experiences in which they integrated the information, people, and tools they needed to succeed.

It was challenging in all the best ways.

The Open-Source Learning experience is very different than the school experience. OSL participants consider their identities, their roles in the learning community, their goals, and their desired outcomes. Their choices inform the design process.

Students, explored the limits of their understanding. I explored the limits of the schooling organization’s capacity to do something new.

From Students to Learners

By the time they get to high school, students have a decade of experience in school. Anyone with ten years of experience at anything is considered a veteran.  

In that time, students are trained to:

  • Conduct themselves obediently and passively.
  • Seek rewards and avoid punishment.
  • Hide their phones behind textbooks and slink down in the back row so as to be invisible.

The problem of student passivity as a function of powerlessness was well-defined before the pandemic. In his seminal book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paolo Freire called this dynamic “the ‘banking’ concept of education,” in which “knowledge is a gift bestowed by those who consider themselves knowledgeable upon those whom they consider to know nothing.”

In school, it’s “eyes on your own paper” and “ask permission before you speak.” But in the world after graduation, people want to know: “Why you can’t you be a better team player?” and “Why can’t you try solving that problem for yourself?”

In addition to preparing for a complex and uncertain future, young people will now have to learn how to work virtually. Many organizations that went virtual or hybrid during the pandemic have concluded that it’s less expensive and more productive to work remotely. They’re not going back to HQ.

Open-Source Learning prepares people for this world. There is no back row on the internet. Whether you contribute or not is clear for all to see. Right now we need active engagement more than ever. Our democracy, our economy, and our mental health depend on it.

Before the pandemic OSL was an oasis. A happy outlier. The exception that proved the rule. The rest of the school day reinforced institutional authority and traditional approaches. Students still had to navigate to get where they really wanted to go, but at least they had a quiet corner where they could breathe. And hack.

The Open-Source Learning Academy

When the pandemic closed campuses in March 2020, I presented the Open-Source Learning Academy (OSLA) to the superintendents of the California public high school district where I taught. In our first conversation I compared the Open-Source Learning Academy to Skunk Works.

Open-Source Learning is more than a clever way to deliver traditional classroom curriculum. Open-Source Learning delivers Freire’s solution to the social justice problem in traditional schooling:

“The oppressed are regarded as the pathology of the healthy society, which are therefore adjust these ‘incompetent and lazy’ folk to its own patterns by changing their mentality. These marginals need to be ‘integrated,’ ‘incorporated’ into the healthy society that they have ‘forsaken.’

“The truth is, however, that the oppressed are not ‘marginals,’ are not people living ‘outside’ society. They have always been ‘inside’ – inside the structure which made them ‘beings for others.’ The solution is not to ‘integrate’ them into the structure of oppression, but to transform that structure so that they can become ‘beings for themselves.’”

(Pedagogy of the Oppressed, p.55)

OSLA is fully virtual and completely learner-centered. The purpose is for each participant to move from passive student to active learner. Students go through an onboarding process in which they get a briefing and make a personal decision/commitment to join:

Whether your learning community is ready to get past the senseless debate over learning face-to-face versus online, or if you want to create an Open-Source Learning course based on the classroom experience, the ideas are yours to adapt as you see fit for your learning community. Please feel free to Contact Me with any questions or suggestions.

A student’s first impression of Open-Source Learning

Remember your first day of class? The teacher was so enthusiastic! It really seemed like things were going to be different— right up until they weren’t.

The first day of Open-Source Learning is just like the first day of every other course—until it isn’t.

On your first day in Open-Source Learning, you receive some information and an invitation. You have options and you’re asked to choose a course of action. Actually, you’re forced to choose. Or come up with a better idea.

At that point, if I’m the lead learner, I leave.

That’s right. I walk out of the room and close the door behind me. This has to be your call.

Look around at the other students you’re not learners yet, are you? See their raised eyebrows raised as you all share the WTF moment. You’re in what Tuckman would call the forming stage of group development.

Finally someone speaks up. Maybe someone answers or makes a joke. Eventually the vocal members decide and validate what the group seems to want.  Everyone agrees that they don’t want school-as-usual, so the entire process takes about four minutes.

Someone comes outside to get me. Later in the day, you read the following post on the course blog. Now – for the first time in your entire experience as a student – you’re in the driver’s seat. It’s time to stand and be counted.

The defining characteristic of Open Source Learning is that there is no chief; all of us are members of a network that is constantly evolving.


Will this blog see tomorrow?

[NOTE: The following post is an example of what I published for students on campus to read in the afternoon, after they got home from campus on the first day of school.]

It’s an open question. Think about today’s in-class discussion. Ask yourself what you really want out of this semester. Then, comment to this post with your decision and at least one reason for it. As Benjamin Franklin observed, “We all hang together or we all hang separately.” We won’t move forward unless all of us participate.

I’ve created an approach to learning in which students use 2.0 tools to create their online identities, express themselves, and demonstrate what they can do.

I call the model Open-Source Learning. I define it with a mouthful: “A guided learning process that combines timeless best practices with today’s tools in a way that empowers learners to create interdisciplinary paths of inquiry, communities of interest and critique, and a portfolio of knowledge capital that is directly transferable to the marketplace.”

Students use Open-Source Learning to create a wild variety of personal goals, Big Questions, Collaborative Working Groups, and online portfolios of work that they can use for personal curiosity, self-improvement, or as a competitive advantage in applying for jobs, scholarships, and admission to colleges and universities. We’ve been at this a long time. You can see a sample course blog here and some personal member blogs here.

Several members of one of the first Open-Source Learning cohorts made this video about the experience:

In an era when it seems like all you hear about school is how much it sucks, it’s nice to see student achievement make positive waves.  Check out this Open-Source Learning interview with students and Howard Rheingold, the man who literally wrote the book on The Virtual Community 20 years ago.

The defining characteristic of Open-Source Learning is that there is no chief; all of us are members of a network that is constantly evolving. Another key element is transparency. What we learn and how well we learn it, how we respond to setbacks, and even some of our favorite inspirations and habits of mind are right out there in public for everyone to see. Readers will rightly perceive what we curate as the best we have to offer.

OPEN-Source Learning

And all this is Open. In thermodynamics, an open system exchanges substance, not just light and heat. To us, the important idea is that the network can change in composition and purpose. Every time you meet someone new and exchange ideas, you’re not only enriching each other, you’re changing your minds and contributing opportunities for others to do the same. In other words, you’re learning and teaching* (*one of the most effective ways to learn).

Open-SOURCE Learning

We’re not limited to one source for curriculum or instruction. We have a full slate of online conferences scheduled this year including authors, authorities on the Internet and social media, entrepreneurs, and others. Learners create unexpectedly fun and interesting adventures all the time. Last year a mother/daughter team presented a lesson on class distinctions in Dickens & Dr. Seuss online (I’d post & link if I hadn’t forgotten to click ‘Record’ that day).  Ricky Luna invited a champion drummer to talk with students online about music and its connections to literature and life.

If we read something that makes an impression we can reach out to the author—and if the author isn’t around anymore, we can reach out to the author’s estate, family, leading authorities, and others. As we consider the core curriculum we can look around at other communities to see what they do differently—the Internet gives us an easy, free way to get our hands on something better if it’s out there.

No matter what we do in class, every single one of us won’t always get equally optimal benefit out of what happens in a 50-minute period. Some of us get it one way, some of us get it another. In two clicks you can have your choice of 79,248 strategies, tactics, and resources.

As you get the hang of this you’ll come up with your own ideas. Testing them will give you a better sense of how to use the experience to your greatest advantage.

Students use Open Source Learning to create a wild variety of personal goals.

Why use the Internet to customize our conversations instead of Big Data to standardize them? Because no one knows how learning actually works–what IS that little voice that tells you what you should’ve said 15 minutes after you should’ve said it? How does a subneuronal lightning storm somehow account for our experience of being alive?

Open-Source LEARNING

We are not sure how to account for the individual experience and demonstration of learning. We are also not sure what exactly the individual should be learning about at a time when factoids are a search click away and the economy, the environment, and the future are all increasingly complex and uncertain.

We’re better off when we understand how we think. After all, how we think is a powerful influence on how we act.  If you think of your blog work as a list of traditional school assignments/chores, you will treat it that way and it will show. Your friends will miss your posts and worry that you’ve moved to The House Beyond the Internet– or that you’re still at your place but trapped under something heavy. At any rate you’ll be missed, and you’ll be missing out.

Get Connected

This work should help you connect the dots between the interests that drive you, an academic course that derives its title from words hardly anyone uses in casual conversation, and practical tasks like applying for scholarships and college admissions. 

The general idea is for you to do your best at something personally meaningful, learn about how you and others learn while you’re in the act, and fine-tune your life accordingly. In addition to mastering the core curriculum, improving your own mind is the highest form of success in this course of study.

As you well know (Put that phone away or I’ll confiscate it!), many people are worried about the use of technology in education. They are rightly concerned about safety, propriety, and focus: will learners benefit or will they put themselves at risk? The only way to conclusively prove that the benefits far outweigh the risks is to establish your identities and show yourselves great, both online and in meatspace.

As we move forward you will learn how the Internet works, how you can be an effective online citizen, and how you can use 2.0 and 3.0 tools to achieve your personal and professional goals. You’ll also learn a lot about writing and the habits of mind that make readers and writers successful communicators.

As Benjamin Franklin famously observed, “We all hang together or we all hang separately.”

Because Open Source Learning is a team sport, this is all your call. You have to decide if you want to pursue this new direction, or if you want to invent another possibility with or without social media, or if you prefer the familiarity of the traditional approach. There is admittedly something comforting about the smell of an old book, even if it’s a thirty-pound textbook that spent the summer in a pile of lost-and-found P.E. clothes.

My perspective may be obvious but I’m just one voice. Please add yours with a comment below.

[Originally published at Dr. Preston’s English Literature & Composition 2014-2015. It’s worth a click to read the learners’ comments.]

[Header Image: Student Lesley Aguilar becomes the master Open-Source Learner. Image: David Preston]