As the semester wraps up for us at Open.Michigan, it’s easy to focus on upcoming activities, milestones and events. But ISKME’s Big Ideas Fest (held earlier this month) left a lasting impression on me and reminds me of the value of critical reflection.
The Fest proclaimed “Design Solutions To [Our] Nation’s Toughest Educational Challenges” and it brought an international group of over 100 educators, administrators, students, entrepreneurs and innovators together for three days to discuss how we can move education forward in the 21st century. The Fest was organized around the themes of its “action collabs,” designed to “demonstrate a new framework for generating actionable ideas by creating a space for conversation, collaboration and action” (p. 18, Big Ideas Fest action guide, 2010). Employing design thinking strategies, each talk in the rapid fire series and each event was organized around the four themes of: identifying opportunity, designing, prototyping, and scaling and spreading. It was an engaging and valuable way to encourage participant discussion, share information and develop skills.
Open.Michigan is a university initiative that is aligned with educational goals and methods for higher education, but not directly involved in curriculum development or standards. So the conversations I had at the Big Ideas Fest were very useful to understanding just how the educational landscape is shifting in light of new technological innovation and how open educational resources can fill gaps and needs at all levels of education. From discussions of how important strong mentorship and social networking opportunities are to educational opportunities (Paul Freedman, Altius Education; Ariel Sacks, On the Shoulders of Giants) to creative ways of engaging students on their own terms (Constance Steinkuehler, MMOs and learning) the presenters and the participants all provide interesting perspectives and experiences that can inform how Open.Michigan can contribute to education through open practices and the creation of open educational resources (OER).
Here are a few takeaways from the Fest that I think we can apply to our workflow and practices at Open.Michigan:
“I don’t know and anyway I’m going away now.”
The point of Sugata Mitra’s keynote speech is that children can teach themselves, given the right tools and adequate time. In fact, they teach each other knowledge and skills that are seemingly beyond their ability to comprehend. The hierarchies of education that have been established in formal education are being broken down by the opportunities to digitally access, link to and use information from a vast number of resources. Point for us, because the University of Michigan has now published hundreds of OER online in such a way as to be accessible to children (or any learner) across the world. But is it all about access? Dr. Mitra’s talk alluded to information literacy skills, specifically that the children he worked with developed the necessary skills to navigate the vast Internet to identify, analyze and vet information that answered the questions they were left with when Dr. Mitra went away. An important aspect of the OER that we create at Open.Michigan is that we use editable formats so that it is adaptable so that those who access the information can also use it to suit their local needs. We aim to provide our community not just with valuable information that they can consume but with the skills, tools, and opportunity to take control of the information at their fingertips.
We must participate in the creation of learning and knowledge production, being our own guinea pigs when necessary. Leading by example is something that nearly every one of the speakers at the Big Ideas Fest is apparently quite good at. Many successful programs that target students “pushed out” of the formal education system, including the Academy for College Excellence and Ocoee Middle School, and incorporate opportunities for engagement and collaborative learning between students and teachers. In effect, they create opportunity spaces for innovation and this innovation leads to learning.
At Open.Michigan we encourage participatory learning by engaging students and faculty in the process of creating open educational resources. We believe that students and teachers can collaborate to learn together, producing valuable resources for others to use along the way. We try to be as transparent as possible in our activities and encourage others to participate and contribute to the forward momentum of Open.Michigan. In order to be successful, we must not only preach innovation but we must also be innovation, encouraging the design and iteration process and learning from our mistakes and experiments.
A few of the rapid fire talks at the Fest discussed physical learning spaces and the need to break down the traditional hierarchies of teacher and student roles. Other speakers discussed the need to meet students on their own ground, matching their educational experiences more directly to their life experiences. By offering adaptable educational resources for anyone to use, Open.Michigan encourages innovation on a global scale. Not only can learners and teachers alike view and use our packaged materials, but they can use parts of our OER, they can translate it and they can create new forms of educational materials that suit their own needs. They can be innovation.
“Don’t tell. Ask.”
This is something Open.Michigan and the OER movement struggle with constantly. It is something teachers across the world struggle with. How do we connect with our community members or the people we are partnering with? It is easy to create lists of the benefits of OER, open licensing and open content. It’s easy to tell people why they should care about the ability to legally share and adapt creative works. In fact, it can be important to do. But this telling has its limits and again and again I heard this from speakers and participants at the Big Ideas Fest. Students, teachers and people across the world and across institutions have different reasons for why they do what they do. Sometimes a student’s motivation is altruistic or even because she loves learning, but other times it can be very specific. At Open.Michigan, we aim to be collaborators and guides to facilitate open access to and use of educational resources and we strive to enhance educational opportunities for those both inside and outside of the University of Michigan community. It can be easy for us to lose sight of the variety of motivations that people have for engaging in the learning process as we push forward with our own agenda of fostering a more open and transparent society. Instead of telling folks why they should care about open, we need to remember to ask them why they care about open or why they choose to participate in our activities. Stories are powerful tools and teaching is often an intimate experience.
The Big Ideas Fest was full of interesting anecdotes, experiences, trials and experiments. It served as a forum where everyone could drop their rank for a few days and talk freely and openly about the state of education today and all the different fields that it intersects (technology, information science, law, social services, policy and politics and the list goes on). These are just a few of the “aha” moments I had at the Fest—some were good reminders while others helped me think about the educational world from a different perspective and to understand how the open movement complements more traditional educational activities.
In closing, I think we should all replace the word “fail” with the word “prototype” in our activities. Prototyping can only lead to success, whether from new knowledge gained or successful initiatives implemented. We shouldn’t be afraid to prototype.