Popping the Bubble

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Engage With Open Learning Assignments

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A Personal Note on Ostrom, Open Learning, and Me

As usual, I have way too many balls in the air and way too many ideas happening at once.  It’s exciting but every silver lining has a touch of grey. (hat tip , Robert Hunter).

I continue wearing my multiple hats as part of the school’s Open Learn Lab. I still have no title, although ITS calls me the Project Champion (thank you).  I actually prefer “Chief Instigator”.  Anyway, it continues to be me as server sys admin, dev  ops, open pedagogy evangelist, WP developer, inventor, faculty professional developer, and chief pixel washer.   We are digital, so there’s no bottles to wash anymore. Just pixels.  This year I do have two fantastic  enthusiastic student interns that are convinced we’re going to revolutionize higher ed. On top of all that, there’s still the half-load of teaching and course development.  And in a community college, once you’ve done the governance & faculty leadership gig, it kind of sticks to you – especially if you’re trying to get the Lab “institutionalized” (translation: into the org chart & budget permanently).

So I’ve been spending most of the past year trying to figure out for folks where or how “open learning” fits into the college – ours or any community college.  I think I’ve been making progress on that front with the Commons of Our Own idea.  But then David Bollier at OpenEd17 steps into my world with his talk of the commons.  BAM.  The grey cells start firing at accelerated pace.  The economist part of me starts kicking in and I’m off to the races.

Bollier gets me to start researching and reading and listening to Elinor Ostrom.  Now I’m embarrassed to say that while I had a most passing familiarity with her work, I hadn’t until now taken a deep dive.  My loss. That’s both the silver lining and the touch of grey.  Her and Vince Ostrom’s ideas on governance of commons, polycentric complex economic systems, and the differentiation between commons as behaviors vs common pool resources has the little grey cells firing like a fourth of July fireworks finale. Silver. Lots of silver.  It’s all coming together.  My multi-disciplinary career and background, the Open Learning Lab, the tech, higher ed governance and policy, pedagogy, and what we need to do for people.  BAM. Silver linings.

Unfortunately, I’m not a young man. Touch of grey around the temples.  Ok, ok, ok, lots of grey throughout.  I get a feeling that I missed my calling and a chance to really do some interesting stuff in this commons area.  I could have done so, so much but my education didn’t really expose me to the Ostroms or the Commons (except for the myth of the “tragedy” thereof).

So I’m kind of overwhelmed now.  Today, while out on my walk, I listened to Elinor’s lecture at Indiana U just after her wining the Nobel Memorial Prize.  I found myself alternating between shouts of “yes!” as I connected her ideas to our present situation in open learning and higher ed, and  then followed by waves of sadness and perhaps tears (“no, you have something in your eye!”) as I realize what could have been personally.  As I said, I’m not a young guy.  I’m gonna have to make the most of these years left.  There’s a lot to do and lots of connections to make.  Collaborations about innovation aren’t the easiest thing to put together at a community college.

I promise I’ll blog and tie all this stuff together.  I have to.  I promised to talk about it at OER18 and OEGlobal 18 in April.

Here’s the lecture:

And, hat tip to Robert Hunter and Jerry Garcia.   

Do As We Say, Not…

In keeping with my recent promise, I’m going to do a shorter and definitely incomplete post.

Most parents eventually realize that children follow our examples way more than they  follow our instructions.  If you really want your child to do X or behave like Y, then you have to model that behavior and do X yourself and behave like Y.  The admonition to “Do as I say, not as I do” isn’t very effective.  They will do as we do, not as we say.

Yet colleges, and I presume universities, although I speak only with experience about colleges, seem to be predicated on the idea that modelling desired behaviour somehow isn’t relevant in the college context.

I can’t tell you have many times I’ve been to a professional development event or major conference and had to sit through some long presentation  and lecture where the speaker was trying to convince me not to lecture any more.  Or where the speaker was using  a word-dense Powerpoint slide deck to convince me that the research suggests not using Powerpoint in class.  Right. Do as they say, not as they do. Then there’s the time college leadership has brought in outside speakers to lecture us on the need to flip our classrooms.

It strikes me that there’s a lot of this behavior-message mismatch happening in our pedagogy  too. We want students to think critically and creatively.  Yet we will only accept whatever the big publisher’s textbook says as authoritative and we mark wrong the student’s attempts at another interpretation. Or, we mark them down when they deviate from the rubric. What’s worse, we say we want them to think critically, yet all of our course content – textbook, ancillary slides, problem sets, etc. – is just the packaged content Pearson-McGrawHill-Cengage oligopoly. We use it without even thinking about it, let alone critically evaluating it, modifying it, and making it our own.  Of course, without open licenses, we can’t modify it. So why did we choose it in the first place if we couldn’t critically make it our own? What are we really teaching our students?

In my role as founder and Chief Instigator of the LCC Open Learning Lab, I’ve been struggling with how to get more students interested in writing and creating on the public web.  I started with hopes of pushing them to create domains of one’s own, but I’ll admit it’s been a struggle to just get them to want to write on their own blog.  Unless you count Facebook and Instagram posts, writing as a way to think or express themselves is something they seemingly only do when it’s assigned and required.

Then it struck me. I’ve heard this complaint before. It’s kind of evergreen actually among faculty and administrators.  Students don’t write enough.  A common solution for several decades now has been for a college to create a “Writing across the curriculum” program (WAC).  The very fact that WAC’s have been around a long time and students still aren’t writing that much should tell us there may be something else missing in our solution.

I suspect the missing piece is what we, the faculty and administrators, do.  In my experience, outside of tenure-seeking faculty at research-oriented schools, most faculty  don’t really write much.  What little they do write is in response to an assignment: write a document assigned by an administrator.  I’ve been told they’re too tired to write after reading and grading all their student papers or any of a myriad of other reasons -reasons that sound vaguely like what I hear from students.

I know that before I discovered WordPress and blogging, I didn’t write that much.  I imagined a lot of things I’d write, but they stayed in my imagination locked away and totally incomplete – just like I suspect many of our students’ ideas.  But when I started blogging, embraced an open course content approach, and began to develop my own public persona on the web as Econproph, it all changed. My critical thinking skills improved. My ideas began to reach people. They responded. That inpired me and I learned more. It became  a virtuous cycle.

So, I’m wondering if Writing Across the Curriculum isn’t a case of “Do as I say, not as I do”.  Perhaps in order to inspired students to write more we should change the WAC program.  Instead of Writing Across the Curriculum, why not Writing Across the Campus?  Why should students be reading what their professors, deans, and provosts think and say?  Shouldn’t they be able to see how these people with whom they interact daily, actually critically think, engage ideas, and communicate?  Perhaps if we  Do the writing ourselves, they’ll follow our example.

Note to self:  If this was a “shorter” post at 794 words, then I apparently don’t know what “short” is supposed to mean.




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.

Running Errands at Domains17

I’m speaking again at Domains17 conference. I’ll talk about the LCC Open Learn Lab experiences in creating and exploring a Domains of One’s Own project at a community college.  It’s also applicable to any teaching-oriented college or university wanting start a DoOO.

Here are the slides. If this embedded view doesn’t show, they can be downloaded/viewed at this link.



And here’s a link to download the Final Report of the Open Learn Lab.  It’s called “Final” report because initially we only committed to a 1.5 year project to explore the feasibility and desirability of doing a DoOO at the college.  As you’ll, read the results were quite positive and now we’ve committed to expanding and “institutionalizing” the program at LCC.  I’ve also committed to helping other schools get started via a non-profit organization called Malartu, Inc.

Open Learn Lab project – Final Report_May2017

OER17 – Connections to Relationships

These are my reflections from the OER17 conference in London.  It is a mark of  a powerful community and conference that it is nearly 3 weeks gone, yet it has a powerful hold on me.  I wrote just six months ago how OpenEd16 changed me. Lightning has struck twice.  I can’t be the same again.

There is so much to recount and I’m sure I can’t do justice in mentioning all the great stuff I learned. Instead I’ll try to actually put it into practice and spread the word.

My journey to London started with a speculative blog post last November in the wake of Trump’s election in the US. With the encouragement of Martin Weller, David Kernohan, and others it led to the panel discussion I assembled for the conference. Just the experience of putting together the panel with so many great people was awesome. Thank you to Martin, David, Maha Bali, Lorna Campbell, Robin DeRosa, Chris Gilliard, and Nadine Aboulmagd.

The greatest experience for me of the open education community in the past couple years has been the connections made. I want to comment here on the importance of making connections. For decades, I’ve gone to conferences and shows. As an academic, I’ve done the economics world, the higher ed leadership/accreditation world (HLC, AACU and the like), the community college and general teaching and technology conferences.  Sometimes I felt like visitor from Mars and other times it felt close-but-not-quite.  The open education community has become home. I feel at home with these people.

One of the best aspects of the open education community is that people are, well, open. They connect. They welcome connections. They are, as Kate Bowles would say, hospitable.  I find them authentic. So in the last couple years as I’ve become more active in the open education community, my “network” has grown. Saying the “network has expanded” sounds too cold. I’ve connected with people.  I can say with pride and great warmth that I now have connections to people in places around the world. This makes the world smaller and more human.

I’ve always been concerned for events and the well-being of people around the world.   I follow the news. I seek out other perspectives. But without personal connections, such concern is only abstract. To read of a bombing is tragic. But when we have personal connections, the depth of feeling changes. We connect to the humanity.

A year ago I would read of the bombing of a Coptic church in Eqypt and be sad to think of the people killed and their families. I may have reacted with anger at the political policies that lead ultimately to desperate acts of terrorism. Now I read of such a bombing and the depth of feeling is greater. I know people there. They may be hundreds of miles away and uninvolved but they’re a lot closer to it than I am. I have at least some small glimmer of their lives. I wonder how it affects them. Being connected to at least one or two real persons, individuals I know and care about, my concern, feelings, and thoughts for all the Egyptian people take on a different character. My connections with one or two help weave a stronger fabric for humanity.

At OER17, I experienced making new connections to people in places I thought I would never connect with. Places like South Africa, Germany, Scotland, France, and Australia.  But I also experienced how what starts as connections can deepen into relationships.

I want to mention two in particular. It was so wonderful to finally put a face and human touch to them.  Jim Groom is somebody I’ve learned from, worked with, and given grief to over the Twitter for a few years now. We’ve come to know each other enough that Jim himself wondered how it could be that we hadn’t met in person yet.  (I still maintain it’s because he fled the country when I signed up for Reclaim, btw.) That connection became a relationship.

Finally I want to acknowledge the wonderful soul of Maha Bali who I only connected with for the first time last fall, yet has become such a valued relationship in my life it is difficult to believe it has only been six or so months. I see and understand things differently because of Maha. (and Maha, you’ll be pleased to know that with my wife’s help I am practicing how to properly pronounce your name.  It’s harder than you think for this old Ohio boy).

Open education, by fostering openness as a value, respect for people, and the technology to make it happen, creates connections.  When we mindfully nurture those connections and collaborate creatively, those connections become relationships. Relationships can span the globe and weave the fabric of humanity.  That is how we will eliminate poverty and create peace – one connection at a time.  The politics of open is the politics of connected people.

Thank you all for the experience.