Student-Centered in an Open World

At my university, we use the phrase “student-centered” all the time.  Sometimes it’s in non-controversial ways (mostly we all agree that collaborative classrooms are student-centered, that internships and experiential learning opportunities are student-centered, that thinking of how policies will impact actual students is student-centered).  Other times, we don’t seem to have consensus about what it means to be student-centered (is it student-centered to excuse certain kinds of class absences for students? or is it student-centered to use attendance penalties to help students understand the repercussions of missing class?).  At the recent OpenEd14 conference, I attended a number of sessions focused on what it means to centralize students in a classroom informed by open access pedagogy.  I found these sessions useful not just in helping me think about how to increase my use of OER’s in my classes, but also in helping me interrogate the term “student-centered” more rigorously than I am accustomed to doing.

Quill Wests’s panel on using open pedagogy to solicit student voices was excellent.  West began by talking about the problematics of what David Wiley has called the “disposable assignment,” the assignment that is handed in, but basically just thrown away after it’s handed back with comments.  The imagery here– all of that work ultimately ending up in a literal garbage can– is sobering to those of us who find ourselves trying to argue that the classroom space is a real world space, and that the work we do in class matters to us as learners and matters to the world as well.  West’s assignments work on getting the best (not always only the most polished) of her students’ work out into the world, through the use of open repositories and blogs.  I’ve been using live blogs (and Twitter and a number of other public tools) in my courses already, but hadn’t thought of them as way of honoring student work.  Instead of thinking of these interactive spaces as ways for students to experiment with “real world” audience, I now think of them as a space where students can contribute and change the nature of the fields to which they are contributing.

This is also about valuing the role of the public university.  How seriously am I taking my role as a public intellectual or my university’s role as a contributor to the public good if the daily work of the university is not in conversation with the larger transdisciplinary community?  In another OpenEd14 session, Will Engle and Novak Rogic talked about the attributes of technology that are necessary to create impact: it needs to be open, expandable, user-friendly, flexible, and scalable.  In this sense, we can think about how we use blogs, or wikis, or repositories, or social media platforms not just to share student work, but to contribute to a new educational model for institutionalized learning.  Now the relationship between public universities and the public is more symbiotic, more collaborative.  The payoffs here are on both sides.

The bottom line for me on this is just that to claim to be “student-centered” is actually a pretty major claim.  It really shouldn’t be lip service related to whether a certain policy makes life easier for students, or a simple check box for certain assignments that occasionally privilege student input.  Instead, we need to think about all the work our students do as work that contributes to and changes the shape of knowledge.  We need to think about learning outcomes and assessments in a way that honors students as co-creators of our courses, capable of shifting the nature of what the course produces in ways that we can’t always (or ever?) predict.  We need to think of the academy as a service provider: one that opens public discussions on key issues, one that deepens conversations that are already in progress outside of its walls.

I am starting to see “student-centered” as a concept that is deeply involved with the concept of “openness,” and I think it will have dramatic effects on how I think about my courses and assignments as I move forward.

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