Commons of Our Own

A college degree is more than the sum of its courses. The learning that takes place in the classroom has always been only a part of a good college education. Many researchers, including most recently Cathy Davidson in The New Education (Basic Books, 2017)  have noted that what is important and most transformative are the opportunities to share, create, and connect on campus, not the lectures and testing of the classroom. The learning experiences that are most impactful are those that connect the classroom to experiences and authentic assignments rooted in the real world.  Historically, this is why campus life and indeed the physical campus itself has always been so important. The campus, and life on the campus, has provided the liminal space and the linkage between classroom and real world. The campus is truly a place of ambient learning.

In Open and Integrative: Designing Liberal Education for the New Digital Ecosystem (AAC&U, 2016), Randy Bass and Bret Eynon argue for the importance of engagement, community and mentorship, and integration in liberal education. They observe how the digital revolution in education – indeed the digital revolution in all society – has tended to unbundle higher education, attempting to reduce a college education to a mere collection of online training courses. The argue instead for a vision of a “learning-first” digital ecosystem. Their AAC&U and Gates Foundation commissioned study identified many ways universities and colleges could create a new digital learning eco-system that is learner-centered, networked, integrative, adaptive, and open.  They provided many examples of such important initiatives such as Open Educational Resources, (OER), public e-portfolios by students, and student research. They devoted an entire chapter to just one such innovation, “Domains of One’s Own” (DoOO) projects. DoOO projects emerged from the University of Mary Washington and spread to approximately 50-60 universities and liberal arts schools. 

The LCC Open Learn Lab was an experiment launched in Spring 2016 to see if a DoOO type project were feasible or valuable at a community college. LCC was the first community college to attempt a DoOO project.  The results of that initial experimentation period were enormously successful as documented in the final report for what had become “Phase I” of an ongoing project. That report is available online at http://bit.ly/2yZSwEh. The first year-and-half of experimentation established that “it is both feasible and worth doing!”  But, being new and innovative, how “it” fit in the college was not obvious. Phase II of the project requires explaining how to institutionalize the effort. Institutionalization of the Open Learn Lab is more than just finding a place on the org  chart or a budget line to fund it. It requires clarifying how open learning fits in the LCC mission, plans, and projects. Explaining how Open Learning fits at LCC is the objective of this document.

The LCC Open Learn Lab has helped faculty, staff, and most importantly, students, to create hundreds of public websites where they can create, publish, connect, and share. These websites are all located within a domain called OpenLCC.net. While the Open Learn Lab staff often help set up the initial sites, the content of these sites and vision of what they can do and how they can be used to further learning and community connection belongs to the scholars in our LCC community – our students, faculty, and staff. OpenLCC.net is a scholarly commons. 

The Physical Campus – Before Digital

The physical campus has always formed a space where learning was shared and integrated, where students and professors could connect outside the classroom. Classrooms, the spaces where courses are taught, are closed, private spaces. There are good reasons for that – although it is possible to be tightly closed or restricted. Courses constitute parts of a curriculum which leads to some kind of certification. Institutions need documentation and record-keeping of what happens there – documentation that we used to call a grade-book but now call assessments, grades, and analytics. Both students and professors need a safe place where ideas can be examined and explored without outside interference. The classroom experience is temporal. Often the artifacts produced are as fleeting as the course itself.

The best campuses provide ambient learning and spaces for connection-building outside the classroom. They provide libraries, common eating areas, study zones, exposure to art and scholarly works outside the classroom, and ways to connect to the larger world. They provide student life. The campus provides opportunities and encouragement for sharing, creating, and connecting.

Providing this kind of campus space has always been easier for full-time, residential colleges and universities. Students are literally immersed in the environment 24/7. Community colleges and other institutions with a large part-time, working, or commuter student population have been more challenged in providing the campus commons.  Lansing Community College has rightly received significant recognition for the great improvements it has made to the physical campus environment in the past decade.

The Digital or Online World Today

The digital world of the 21st century poses an even greater challenge in providing the creative, connected, sharing experiences of the campus.  Increasingly, students of all ages are engaged with the digital world. Yes, they still need to do things in a physical space, but the imperatives of social media and their digital lives command more of their attention. The physical campus finds it difficult to compete for attention. Online education has created an even larger gap.

Although distance education has been around for a long time, the last twenty years have seen an explosion of student enrollment. LCC started its own online courses in 1997. LCC, like many community colleges, now has between a quarter and a third of all courses are delivered purely online. As much as half of all students take at least one online course.  The emphasis in online education has historically been on the courses. Large investments and costs have been incurred to both create online courses and to “deliver” and “manage” them. The result is the modern Learning Management System (LMS). While LCC uses Desire2Learn Brightspace, it makes little difference which LMS is used. The role and function of the LMS, be it Blackboard, Moodle, D2L, or Canvas Instructure, is largely the same. It is to “manage” learning activities. The LMS is, in effect, the digital classroom. Like the classroom, it tries to contain all the relevant activities. The experience of taking a class in a LMS is temporal. At the end of the semester, access to that class disappears. Evidence of what was learned, discovered, or created there is gone, banished to some archives file at a data center not accessible to students.

 

 

The result for students is a virtual desert. Students are connected and spending time, often more than ever, connected to the public digital world. Students of all ages increasingly live their lives connected to the Web and its many sites. Although it is virtual in the physical sense, the digital public Web is the “real” world to students. In contrast, as LMS systems grow more sophisticated and as publishers convert traditional printed textbooks into rented courseware modules, the classroom is experienced as increasingly isolated and cut-off from the “real” world. And indeed it is. There is much value in online digital materials and course work that is easy to navigate and clearly designed to “teach” to some learning outcomes. However, by themselves, the LMS, videos, and related courseware lead to shallow learning. They focus on information transfer, not transformative, integrative learning. It happens in isolation and unconnected.

We see the effects in enrollment and engagement. Students like online classes because of the flexibility and the fit with their busy lives. They use their devices for other learning – cooking, house repairs, play instruments, resolve arguments, etc. Why not use it for college? But when college course delivery is the sole element of the college experience, they lose interest. The closed course is often experienced as isolated from the “real”world – just a series of boxes to check or hoops to jump through. Engagement suffers. Retention suffers. Long-term learning suffers. Online in the LMS, they find few opportunities to connect socially the way they do with social media.

OpenLCC: A Commons of Our Own

OpenLCC.net, is a digital scholarly commons, digital counterpart to the physical campus experience. It is not the equivalent or an analogue, but rather a complement that creates a”new digital ecosystem” that Bass and Eynon envision. OpenLCC enables connections. It connects the content of courses in both f-2-f and LMS classrooms with the real world via open, authentic learning assignments. It provides spaces where students and faculty can document their learning, find their scholarly voice, and publish to the public Web.

A commons is a community, not just a shared pool of resources. As the work of Nobel-prize winning economist Elinor Ostrom and other economists such as David Bollier have shown, a commons is a community that shares resources using established social protocols and norms. OpenLCC.net is a commons of the scholarly activity of LCC scholars: faculty, students, and staff. Being accessible by the public, we can share our scholarly work with the greater Lansing and Michigan communities that support us.

OpenLCC.net is distinguished by the being a .net top-level domain and not a .edu. LCC.edu is the official school site. It is the voice of the institution itself. OpenLCC.net is the commons consisting of the many individual voices of the LCC community. The commons consists of many hundreds of websites created and controlled by individual faculty, students, staff, clubs, or centers. These sites are functionally clustered into four major types: Share, Learn, Create, and Connect.

  • Share sites provide an infrastructure for creation, editing, and hosting of OER materials for classes. Share sites provide faculty a wider range of OER options than typically considered.
  • Learn sites are primarily created by faculty to serve classroom needs. They may consist of course supplements such as a shared glossary, active learning sites, or even public course hubs. Learn sites provide a chance for faculty to add a specific open assignment or activity without needing to completely re-do the course design.
  • Create or Voice sites are mostly individual websites or blogs for students and faculty, allowing them to establish their own public voices and portfolios. Create or Voice sites linked to course hubs enable using a connected-courses open methodology in courses.
  • Connect sites are for discussion, meeting and socializing with others, study groups, or for displaying or connecting with the larger public community of Lansing.

In other posts in this series, I will explain and detail each of these types of sites. Together these sites make it easy for faculty to adopt open educational practices, OER, and open pedagogies incrementally into existing classes, providing a digital learning ecosystem for integrative learning.

One thought on “Commons of Our Own

  1. The whole LMS system always gets me down. As you note, it is forced and temporary, and meaningless other than “am I meeting the requirements for my grade?” Which is exactly NOT what we want our students (at all levels) to be thinking.
    Kevin

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