“Open” and the Cluster Initiative

President Birx has explained that a cluster-based curriculum would be one in which students could identify and articulate the connections between all of their courses, that they could explain the ways in which the perspectives, skills, and knowledge they learned from their courses could be integrated to work on challenging, “wicked” problems. He wants our students to be able to tell their compelling educational story to the people around them, including future, prospective employers. As a campus, we have talked about a lot of ways that we might support our students in being able to tell their stories. Our first major endeavor has been to revamp the First Year Seminar (FYS), 1 of the 4 tools of clusters.

The First Year Seminar Fellows have been meeting for many hours this summer on redesigning this course. We are working on a common, “open” text designed specifically for the course. In my mind, this Open Educational Resource (OER) and the educational experiences it allows are critical to getting students to truly take charge of their educations.

If you’ve heard of OER, you probably think it’s about creating free textbooks to bring costs down for students. And that is certainly one of the goals of the OER movement. I recently attended the Northeast Regional OER Summit and several of the speakers focused on the contribution of textbook prices to the already high cost of higher education. Given the high debt load of PSU students, I’m happy that we’re going to be providing them with a free text for the FYS.

The cost of textbooks is not the thing that I think connects the OER movement to our cluster initiative, however. David Wiley from Lumen Learning was one of the keynote speakers at the summit and his presentation made me think about the OER movement in new ways that seem critically important to what we’re trying to do with clusters. Wiley began by explaining his definition of “open.” Open means that you have permission to engage with the material in ways that copyrighted material often prohibits or allows only at a price. Wiley sometimes talks about this as: “open equals free plus permissions.” What does he mean by “permissions”? When an education resource is open, you have permission to retain it (which means you can make and own copies of it), reuse it (use it in a variety of ways), revise it (adapt, modify, improve it), remix it (combine it with other resources), and redistribute it and any materials you create using it (share it with others). These “five Rs” are usually expressly prohibited with copyrighted material or allowed only if you pay the copyright holder a (usually exorbitant) fee.

Wiley talked about the kinds of teaching and learning activities that teachers and students are able to engage in because they have these “five R” permissions. He calls this “OER-enabled pedagogy.” His argument is that we learn by the things we do. Since copyright restricts what we can do, it restricts the ways in which we are allowed to learn. Removing these restrictions allows us to do new things so “open” allows us to learn in new ways.

My interpretation of Wiley’s argument is that when copyright prevents students from remixing and reusing and even retaining information (as when they are renting their textbooks, for example), we are sending a subtle message that the information is untouchable. The students are placed in a passive rhetorical position, where they are expected to simply receive already complete information. We tell them that we want them to grapple with the text, to question it, to be in conversation with it, but they are not allowed to actually add to, change, and respond to that text. Copyright contradicts the message that we want students to be truly active in their engagement with knowledge and information. When we use OERs in our classrooms, students have permissions to really mess with the text. They can now engage in activities that encourage them to construct new knowledge from the knowledge and information they are learning. And if they also have permission to redistribute what they’ve created, they can make their creations public. Quoting Seymour Papert’s theory of constructionist learning, Wiley said, “Learning happens especially felicitously in a context where the learner is consciously engaged in constructing a public entity.” In other words, using OERs and encouraging students to interact with them in meaningful ways creates an environment that is most conducive to learning.

I’m excited about using this idea in my section of the FYS. As I said, the FYS fellows are creating an OER for the course and the OER includes a chapter on information literacy. Since my section of the course is about “fake news,” I imagine that my students could (if they decide they want to) contribute to that chapter. Their work will then be used by students in future sections of FYS to better understand and develop skills in information literacy. Some people might be concerned that the students aren’t “experts” in information literacy and, therefore, won’t have anything meaningful to contribute. But my experience tells me that isn’t true. For example, I used to teach computer programming in the Computer Science and Technology department. This is a really challenging topic for a lot of students. I used peer teaching methods extensively in my classes. One method I used was to give a quiz that students took individually. As they handed in their answers, I determined who understood the content they were being quizzed on and who did not. I then put them into groups that had at least one student who understood the material and let them take the quiz again as a group with the condition that everyone in the group needed to understand whatever they handed in. The students who understood the material then explained it to those who didn’t, often in ways that I had not thought of. I listened to these explanations and learned from them. The students doing the explaining understood the material better after explaining it. The students who hadn’t understood now had multiple ways to think about the material. It was a win-win-win situation. These non-experts contributed positively to their own learning as well as to the learning of others.

Our students can develop and contribute to OERs. Engaging students in OER-enabled activities seems to me to be a powerful way to help them take ownership over their educational stories. We are embracing these ideas in the FYS. Imagine if we had an entire Gen Ed program that embraced these ideas. I’m interested in exploring how we might make that happen.

As I said, we are creating an OER for the FYS. It isn’t yet ready for public consumption but when it is, you’ll be able to find it at psufys.pressbooks.com.

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