Open and Networked Education

13 What an Open Pedagogy Class Taught Me about Myself

Miranda Dean

Before taking Evolution and Human Behavior BIO302 you could say that I was pretty ‘disconnected’. I had never heard of Open Pedagogy; in fact, I had never taken any sort of online course and the majority of my professors steered clear of using Canvas (BlackBoard/ Easel/ Moodle/ etc.) or any other online platform. I was accustomed to hard-copy textbooks, handwritten in-class worksheets, and producing tangible, hardy-copy projects. Little did I know that being accustomed to this form of learning would end up being the very issue I had with learning.

In order for the relevance of what I’m about to say to make sense, there is one very important thing about me that you need to know: According to conventional standards, I am a perfect student. I proudly hold an impressive cumulative 4.0 G.P.A. at a Liberal Arts College. I draw attention to the fact that I attend a Liberal Arts College because I am a film student; if I went to a Fine Arts College, I would be enrolled in strictly film/ film-related classes where my acceleration would be almost expected. However, at a Liberal Arts College I am required to take maths, sciences (natural and social), arts, humanities, etc. in addition to my major requirements. I would also like to point out that I have always been an outstanding student, and I assumed (until recently) that it meant that I was a good learner — and under the conventional structure, I was).

When I requested to be in an online Biology class I didn’t really know what to expect. I assumed there would be an online textbook that we would have to read before filling out short-answer responses or online homework sheets, then (once every week, or so) we would have to sign into Canvas to take an online quiz or test. I’m sure you can only imagine my surprise when I logged into the course to discover my first assignment was to set up a blog and twitter. I was convinced I had been put into the wrong Canvas course (wouldn’t be the first time it’s happened). On top of all of this, there was no textbook. In the course ‘modules’ page there was a list of terms and a long list of links to different topics (i.e. nature and nurture, genetics and sexuality, the uniqueness of humans – just to name a few). At first glance there appeared to be no set structure – just a pick a topic and write about it. ‘But how am I going to learn BIOLOGY this way?’ I remember frantically asking myself as I scrambled to make sense of the course that I had specifically requested to be in.

I got off to a bad start. I constructed a blog and twitter with very little issue at all, but the first blog proved to be a doozy. I couldn’t figure out what to write about. There was no rubric for our blog posts; I froze under the pressure of having absolutely no expectations. “What does [my professor] expect from me?”, “What am I going to write about?”, “I know nothing about biology, what do I have to contribute?”

I spent my lunch breaks looking up articles and trying to form a connection between the random topics on the ‘modules’ page. My brain was racking. “I’m a 4.0 student I should be able to do this. It’s just a stupid blog post!”, I remember yelling at myself at two o’clock in the morning when the post was due and I still didn’t have a topic. This mounted frustration produced a ‘screw this’ attitude that resulted in me just reading one of the articles and ‘writing something about it’.

That was it. Read the article and write something about it. That was the assignment. If there had been a rubric, that would have been the only thing on it. It took me a few weeks to finally start to understand that concept. At the time I began the course, I was very busy with work and graduation and wasn’t putting very much effort into connecting the pieces on my blog. For a few weeks the course, for me, was a large source of frustration.

I was invited to an Open-Ped talk at my school, and I think that’s what saved me. Understanding what kind of class I was in gave me a whole new perspective. I began attacking my blog with full force. I updated my blog and added new elements. My next blog post was inspired by a favourite performance artist (after reading the article on nature/ nurture and being able to connect a question posed in the article to a question I had asked myself while watching the performance). I stayed on the path of ‘favorites’ and, with a little FaceBook inspiration, my next post was based on my favorite article by Stephen King (which reminded me of some other articles I had read when researching the first post mentioned here). Sure enough, these two articles shared a very surprising common denominator.

NOW I was getting it. I was linking the Biology to my personal life which was my inspiration and in doing this I found more links (a genetic link) that I continued to explore even further in my next post. It was all starting to come together. I was figuring out ways to upgrade my blog and add my portfolio to it. I spent more time making my blog look nicer. I was having conversations and connections with professionals on my blog and on twitter. It was all making sense. So what changed? My mentality and approach.

Just one month prior, I was afraid that I was going to fail a course for the first time in my life and now I’m embracing this course with all of my effort. So what changed?
I realized what kind of learner I really am.

Let’s get one thing straight, I have not mastered learning — that’s not what my 4.0 means. My 4.0 means that I have mastered the system under which we, in the United States, are taught in public institutions. (And with 16 years of practice, I damn-sure hope I’d mastered the thing!). So what does that make me a master of, exactly:

  • Identifying words in bold,
  • Retaining a chapter’s worth of information in a manner that is easily regurgitated,
  • Temporary memory management (being able to remember loads of information for a short period of time and then after the test releasing most of it from my mind),
  • Identifying thesis’s, hypothesises, key terms and statements,
  • Test prep,
  • Five paragraph sentence structure,
  • Structuring a project around the requirements presented to me.

The list goes on. I am not a master of knowledge or learning; I just happen to know how to play the system like I know the back of my hand. The truth is, I don’t know a whole lot. Thirteen years ago I was taught about all of the layers of the Earth. Do you think I remember what they are? I think there’s four layer and crust and core are given – the rest are a mystery. Twelve years ago I learned about how erosion works. I’m still not sure what it is, but I know to be careful on dirt when it’s raining or else I might sink. Eight years ago I spent a whole year learning about all the different kinds of clouds. I currently refer to them as ‘puffy clouds’, ‘rain clouds’, ‘snow clouds’, ‘hazy clouds’. If I was some master of knowledge or learning like the school system tells me I am, wouldn’t I remember these things that I’ve learned?

Now, ask me about the one connecting factor between murder, violence, and loneliness; It’s dopamine. Come back in ten years and ask me again and I’ll still know the answer. Why? Because it’s not information that was dumped on me. It’s not information that I was forced to regurgitate. It’s information that I voluntarily sought out and connect with my personal interests. My biology class is personal to me through my interests. I didn’t learn about evolution and human behaviour, I understand it. I understand what “fitness” is and what “nature and nurture” is and how it plays out in our existence. I understand that the genes in our body have spectrums — dopamine can make you happy or it can make you kill someone — and that gene variations exist in everyone. I understand how the mind works in response to the world around it (and in connection – why humanoid robots, until recently, have been failures – it’s all because of the ‘processing system’). These are things that I understand and will tell others about and will remember for as long as I am capable of remembering stuff.

Without taking an open pedagogy class I would never have realized this about myself. I now approach information, and the way I learn and teach, in an entirely new fashion. I found that I have changed my approach in other classes that I’m taking this semester and it has benefited me greatly. I now see the world a bit differently, and find myself constantly connecting everything I do/ come across. I find myself thinking a lot more about the world that I am in and what I have to gain from it. Information is no longer something that is given and received but is something that is shared.

I am a little sad that I learned this about myself during the final semester of my undergraduate studies, but I plan to take this with me to graduate school and into my own classroom when I am a teacher/ professor. Open-ped changed me for the better – thank you Dr. C for believing in me and pushing me to do this. I understand now. I understand.

This article was originally published on The Current Human Condition and is reprinted here with permission under a CC-BY-SA license.

Photo by Patrick Hendry on Unsplash

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