I usually publish a version of this post on course blog after the first day of class.  Remember your first day of class?  The enthusiastic teacher who made things sound like they were going to be different this time– until they weren’t?  It’s hard to earn students’ trust when they’ve been fooled so many times before.  But this first day is truly different.  Just imagine: On this first day you’re not told what to do or how the class will be.  You’re given options and you’re asked to choose.  You’re forced to choose, because the teacher just walked out of the room and closed the door behind him. You share the WTF moment with the other students around the room.  Then you decide—it doesn’t take long, because anything is better than the same old textbook bitch work.  Everyone agrees.  Someone goes out to get the teacher.  Later in the afternoon, you read this on the course blog. Now, for the first time in your entire experience as a student, you’re actually in the driver’s seat.  What you say next will be just as visible and important as what the teacher says.


It’s an open question.  Think about today’s in-class discussion, ask yourself what you really want out of this semester, and then comment to this post with your decision and at least one reason for it.  (NOTE: As Benjamin Franklin famously 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 and 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.  You can see a sample course blog here and some personal member blogs here.

Several members of the first Open Source Learning cohort 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.

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).

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.  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’).  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 etc.  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.

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?  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.

Maybe this is why learning still seems magical.  Maybe it shouldn’t be.  Maybe if we learned more about how we think we’d be better off.  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 missing the whole point.  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.

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 students’ comments.]