Rethinking Open Online Learning: A Conversation with Jim Groom

Little did we know that a micro-revolution was brewing on the second morning of the 2011 Open Education conference in Park City, Utah. Keynote speaker Jim Groom emerged from a tent, chanting 'We are the 29%!' to kick off #OccupyOpenEd11. After the dust settled, had a chance to ask Dr. Groom how others could join the cause to take back the power of open education and put it in the hands of the learners.

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By Polly Peterson

Imagine a course that continues long after the semester ends; then envision that course reaching a global audience of learners who join in the conversation and share with others. As Instructional Technology Specialist and adjunct professor at the University of Mary Washington, Jim Groom has touched on a magic formula. His digital storytelling course, DS106, has escaped the confines of the brick-and-mortar school and the traditional semester to become an experimental online radio station. The 'Reverend' (as Groom is fondly known) told us what he's learned by departing from a focus on resources and re-emphasizing the community of learners. What does 'open education' mean for you?

Jim Groom: I've gone to the Open Education Conference three times, and every time it's been a very different experience. The idea of open education is very protean; it's constantly changing. I'm interested in the idea of open education as a community for actors, as a practice that people do together that hopefully grows organically through real ties made both online and off. Open education for me has been a porous group of people who come in and out and share openly who they are and what they're doing.

To me that's an open educational experience, not an open educational resource (OER). It doesn't mean that I'm against OER; I hope that people are creating resources for others. But when that resource becomes divorced from its context, it has no meaning for most of the other people who stumble upon it. I would hope that an OER would be embedded with an open educational experience. That would give people meaning, a sense of what they're doing, even if it's just the ten people in a class, rather than thinking 'I've got four million views on a particular resource, so it's useful.' I don't think that analytic is proven. I think our move toward learning analytics doesn't get at what I think is the real analytic, love and connection. It sounds hippie, and I'm not hippie; in fact, I hate the whole aesthetic of hippies. There's been a great deal of talk about creating structure and repositories, but learning doesn't happen just because it's online.

JG: That's right. We've recorded lectures of some of the brightest minds in their fields, but that's not solving our open education problems. People aren't tapping into them for some reason, and I have to think that's because we're not rethinking the medium. The medium is premised upon connection. The success of Facebook and Twitter and other social media resources are based on immediate connection. Well, not everyone can get into MIT, but anyone can watch their OCW videos. How can open education give students more agency?

JG: It doesn't mean they have anything even remotely close to the experience of being an MIT student, and the fact that we want to try to suggest they do just by putting a lecture online I think is insulting. What we want to do is think about what the new medium of the Web provides us as educators, what it provides us as a community and how we can think about learning in different ways.

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If you're going to be a network professor, or a network teacher, or a network student, you have to put in the time and energy of building a network and being mindful. You're not going to go out one day and say, 'I want a garden,' leave seeds and come back in six months to find a beautiful garden. It has to be cultivated, it has to be mindfully paid attention to. When people ask you a question you've got to react to them, you've got to give them something back; that's a kind of give-and-take currency. It's bartering ideas and emotions.

When you do work, the first thing you want is feedback. So we built in a feedback loop that people would read and respond to on a regular basis, and when you know people are reading and responding to your work you're going to do more and better work. That's something we have to figure out how to scale. All the feedback helps you learn and grow and change.

JG: You get hyped by feedback. Feedback gives you energy. Some people get more than others, and there's a reason: because their stuff is remembered and talked about. Then maybe they feel special, and what's better than feeling special? So many things are telling us we're not. If you feel special even for a moment I think it changes your relationship to whatever you're doing, whether it's school, sports or just parenting; it's good. It's not just a professor grading. The whole world is listening.

JG: That's right. Digital media and the Web is paramount to every other form of media, and if students aren't familiar with it and they don't understand how it works or how to create for it then what I'm teaching is a form of literacy, and it's literacy for a platform and a medium that very few people in higher ed, and I'd argue K-12, are really preparing a student for. And there are millions of people, whether they're in school or not, who could really benefit from understanding how this medium works and how to communicate within it. That means visually, design-wise, with video, with audio, with all these different mechanisms; they're all essential to narrating your process online. And the thing that gets forgotten in open ed is to narrate the process of what students are doing and what they're learning.

That sharing of process, of curating how you learn, is immensely important and beneficial to other people out there who want to learn. And that could come from anybody, and that's the thing we forget when we put certain people on pedestals. Everyone has something to share. I think that's what the Web was about - a human community working together to enrich and augment the learning experience.

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