The Case for Open Courses in Higher Ed: Q&A with Connected Learning Educator Kim Jaxon

Kim Jaxon is interested in having her students “do the thing,” which, she says, means that she’s less interested in preparing them for some later occupation or activity, and more excited about having them “participating right now in ideas that matter to them right now.”

jaxon-quote-300The Chico State assistant professor of English is one of a stellar group of open-learning pioneers who I met when they gathered at UC Irvine over the summer to create “Connected Courses,” a free online course for higher education faculty members to learn how to offer their own open online college courses. The class, supported by the University of California’s Humanities Research Institute, Digital Media and Learning Research Hub and MacArthur Foundation, is being offered now. Jaxon, an active member of the National Writing Project and the Northern California Writing Project, is co-teaching Unit 3 of the semester-long course.

She’s been described by colleagues as a fearless innovator, and she is a strong proponent and practitioner of “connected learning,” a 21st century educational approach that takes advantage of today’s abundance of digital information and social connection and seeks to make learning relevant. Here’s my interview with Jaxon on open learning.

What does open learning in higher education mean to you?

Focusing on participation — thinking of participation as membership in a community. That means connecting our students to people who are thinking about similar ideas out in the world. For example, if I am working with future teachers, then I want to connect them to teacher communities. I can easily do this through blogs, Twitter, and even by connecting them to local classrooms and teachers. I incorporate digital technologies in my classes as tools for problem solving. I started using Google Docs and Twitter, for instance, because I wanted to increase collaboration and sense of community.

What do your students think about that?

Students are craving opportunities to make meaning, to discover, to tinker, to follow their own questions. And, they want to do this challenging work with the support of others who also take the work and ideas seriously.

When university professors open their classrooms and connect their students to people outside the four walls, we demonstrate that their ideas are worth hearing. As an example, my students last semester were blogging about children’s books and young adult novels in the course ‘Reading Literature for Future Teachers.’ As they blogged and tweeted, their ideas were favorited, retweeted, and commented on by authors Sharon Creech, Laurie Halse Anderson, Rainbow Rowell, and Dave Lubar. Dave Lubar, author of the Weenies series, even emailed the bloggers and shared a huge list of resources that they could use in their classrooms. In these moments, students are no longer students. They are simply members of a community who, in this case, read and celebrate children’s literature.

Why do you believe in connected learning?

Connected learning principles — designing classrooms as production centered, interest-driven, peer supported and openly networked environments — fit with theories of learning I’ve considered for many years, theories of situated learning and distributed cognition. I’m an advocate of connected learning because I’ve seen over and over again how designing classrooms that go beyond our four walls (or beyond the closed Learning Management system space) leads to students seeing themselves as members of a shared community: they act less like students and more like peers and colleagues, and more importantly, students build broad networks that will support their growth long after they leave our class. The ideas that manifest through connected learning principles have deep roots: if John Dewey were still alive and speaking about education, without a doubt, he would also be a connected learning advocate.

Why should faculty members in higher education offer open-learning courses?

I think once you think of your class as open, it changes your approach to teaching. You no longer have to imagine an audience or imagine scenarios where the ideas you are working with in a classroom will eventually show up; there is an actual audience and actual scenarios to draw from outside classrooms all the time. There is huge potential to develop networks of support once you open your class, and more importantly perhaps, there is huge potential to increase the diversity of people and ideas. Finally, I’m interested in making education accessible to the most people possible: there is no reason why someone interested in learning shouldn’t be able to drop in on spaces where learning is happening.

How does your “jumbo” writing course work?

I started thinking about open on a larger scale when I designed the jumbo writing course for 90 students. We needed to think beyond “talking in class” as we imagined ways students could participate in our course, which employs the services of nine mentors. We use a lot of digital platforms — blogs, Twitter, social bookmarking sites, Google apps, our own website — as a way to support participation. People outside our classroom often notice student’s blogs and tweets and students then come to see themselves as “real” members of a professional digital community. The point is for students to see themselves as uploaders, making and contributing to our culture, not just downloaders, consuming culture.

How else do you connect students to real-world experiences?

I’ve paired with an amazing middle school teacher. Her 8th graders and my future teachers are reading and blogging together on our course website. Our hope is that the middle school students will have access to college networks and ideas and the future teachers will see how amazing middle school students are as they talk about ideas connected to reading. I’m also teaching a graduate level course this fall, focusing on digital culture and literacies. The students in that course are participating in the Connected Courses course too: we’re really excited about it and the possibility this network will afford for all of us. We truly have the opportunity here to “make the web.”

What’s the biggest technological hurdle students encounter and how do they/you resolve them?

I think the biggest hurdle is fear — fear they will do something wrong or fear that doing something wrong will influence their grade in the class. They’ve come from environments where someone didn’t accept a paper because they wrote their name on the wrong side of the page: now I’m asking them to make a film in iMovie and to trust me that I won’t dock their grade as they figure it out. It takes a few weeks before they see our classroom as a safe space to play with new ideas and platforms.

Where do you see higher education in the future?

This is a challenging question, of course. My hope is that universities invest in faculty, staff, and students and stop investing in expensive “solutions” to problems we may not have. To stay relevant, students should be using resources and platforms that are available on the planet, not resources (like the LMS) that will have no purpose once they leave school. I am amazed by the energy and money we put into buying and supporting what I call “solutions in search of a problem.” If you buy a wrench, then you have to make problems that wrenches can solve, but maybe what I need is a hammer. I hope the future of higher education means we have a space that supports faculty and students with freely available, open source resources when possible, and that creates spaces for faculty and student collaboration. And, I hope faculty open up the possibility for students to do more with course content — more meaning making, more tinkering. Students need a chance to take the materials we offer in our courses and make them relevant to the ideas that matter to them. It is the difference between learning about history and becoming a historian. Students need opportunities to try on the ways of working and the identities that our disciplines afford.

What’s your best argument for open higher education courses?

Your class stops being a “class” and instead becomes colleagues who are members of actual communities of practice.

How do you convince fellow professors to open their classes?

I try to offer examples from students. It’s hard to disagree with classroom design principles that embrace open learning once you see the work students do. I also suggest to faculty to start on a small scale, perhaps connecting their course with another faculty member’s section of the same course. Their students can blog together, give feedback on ideas, or simply come together once in the semester to share something they’ve created. Last fall, my freshman writing classes simply had “pen pals” from another section I taught. We blogged on the same website and kicked off each week with feedback to a peer from the other class. They looked forward to reading the feedback from these outside peers and they built strong research teams, people who were invested in each other’s progress. I’ve found that showing what students are capable of when you open your classroom is the best approach.

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Banner image: Kim Jaxon, center, discusses digital literacy with students Pheng Yang, right, and Melanie Higgins during a class in 2012. Photo by Beiron Andersson/courtesy Chico State