Marginal Syllabus as OER and OEP

Yesterday, thanks to authors Dawn Reed and Troy Hicks, we launched the sixth Marginal Syllabus monthly flash mob via our emerging model of public and collaborative web annotation-as-conversation. We’re now more than halfway through the academic year, and as a Marginal Syllabus organizer I’ve been thinking a lot about how this experiment in equity-oriented, publicly networked, and interest-driven educator learning relates to open educational resources (OER) and open educational practices (OEP). This post is a rough attempt to connect dots by addressing the following question: How are everyday digital spaces transformed into open learning environments, and what might this look like for educator learning?

My motivation to explore the Marginal Syllabus as both OER and OEP can be traced, most immediately, to a few influences. First, I recently read Leo Havemann’s chapter “Open Educational Resources,” which will appear in the forthcoming Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory (here’s the preprint).

This brief and easy-to-digest encyclopedia entry traces the history of educational openness, defines OER and summarizes pertinent debates in policy and practice, and includes an important discussion of OEP as a means of shifting from static (and presumed to be freely available) “resources” toward the messier (and – here’s my bias – more organic and transformative) efforts “to open educational spaces, or open other spaces for education.” Havemann concludes by suggesting: “Openness in education is not a movement for the emancipation of resources, but of people and practice.” This is a great piece and useful foundation for practitioners and scholars alike who appreciate both historical perspective and conceptual clarity. Moreover, Havemann’s analysis helps to frame the Marginal Syllabus as a dynamic OER – a curated document of texts, and texts which contain layers of conversation. And as the Marginal Syllabus grows from month-to-month, dialogical and intertextual conversation using the web annotation platform Hypothesis evidences OEP that open these curated texts as educational spaces.

The second influence motivating this exploration of the Marginal Syllabus as OER and OEP is an emergent collaboration also opening new educational spaces and spaces for education. January’s Marginal Syllabus annotation conversation was organized in partnership with Christina Cantrill, Associate Director of National Programs for the National Writing Project. In addition to wearing her NWP hat, Christina teaches ED677 Seeking Equity in Connected Learning and Teaching at Arcadia University for preservice and in-service educators. Whereas the first five Marginal Syllabus conversations partnered with authors to discuss their texts (and so, too, yesterday with Dawn and Troy), in January we partnered with Christina and her course to read an excerpt from John Dewey’s The School and Society. Christina recently wrote about her course design and decision-making processes that led to our collaboration, and it’s illustrative to quote at length:

In the past I asked everyone to engage in recent work by John Seely Brown and the authors of the Connected Learning Design and Research Agenda while also reading the first chapter of School and Society by John Dewey, a publication of lectures he gave at the turn of the 20th century.

In the past, the Dewey piece has got short shrift from participants in my class and I kept wondering about it – maybe it was less interesting or relevant than I think it is when I read it. So I read it again. No, I decided – this article, despite a few archaic words and gendered descriptions, is still interesting and relevant today, 100+ years later. And JSB, in his 2012 keynote, directly challenges us to tackle Dewey’s ideas in the context of flowing on the tides of change today. So I decided to try something new this time around…

That “something new” was pairing both instructor facilitation and students’ social reading with participation in January’s Marginal Syllabus flash mob. In a distinctive pedagogical move embracing openly networked collaboration, Christina aligned formal course work (something that may be solitary and private) with the less formal – and rather improvisational – public activities of a conversation mediated by web annotation. As much as the Marginal Syllabus values partnership with authors to seed conversation, this decision emphasized the importance of partnering an emergent OEP collective with ED677’s established community of practice.

Because ED677 encourages public blogging, it’s possible to share some of Christina’s students’ reflections on their Marginal Syllabus participation. And in sharing their thoughts, let’s recall that these learners are themselves preservice and in-service educators; as such, their responses directly concern how everyday digital spaces can be transformed into open learning environments, and what this might look like in support of educator learning.

On the differences between independent and social reading:

Typically, in my online graduate classes, my study is conducted independently or through interaction with the teacher. The marginal syllabus allowed me to follow the thinking process of my classmates as they read an article and therefore broadened my own learning experience as I read.

On peer-to-peer exchange:

This method allows for a wonderfully free exchange of ideas and information, where future educators like myself can learn from each other.

On annotation as a teaching method:

I have already shared our annotating activity with my colleagues and I have decided to try to use it in my classroom… annotation is another skill that I would like my students to acquire, so when I introduce Romero Britto this week, I am going to require my students to create a account to annotate the reading.

On pacing and thoughtfulness during the flash mob:

I initially anticipated that the annotation flash mob would resemble a Twitter chat… While I find these types of exchanges to be valuable and exciting, they can also sometimes stress me out. So many people respond to questions and prompts at once that the experience can feel a little overwhelming. It was to my pleasant surprise, then, that I was able to annotate through the Marginal Syllabus event at my own pace. I felt no pressure to rush through comments or responses. Rather, I was able to carefully construct my thoughts before sharing them.

And on active contributions to communal learning:

My appreciation for online annotation has grown significantly.  I LOVE the fact that I can read an article first then click annotations on so that I get insight into what sparked other readers’ interest.  I read through everyone’s annotations and felt as if I was in an actual class discussion of the text.  Leaving my own responses to other readers’ questions made me feel like I was not just passively learning but actively contributing to the understanding.  I had a definite feel of belonging to a group of communal learners.

These are powerful reflections and indicate generative learning opportunities associated with open and collaborative web annotation. Furthermore, the testimonials may be useful evidence for other educators and designers who are interested in open education and open pedagogy, and in particular the types of OER and OEP that usefully support such approaches to online and digitally mediated learning.

Perhaps because of these students’ enthusiasm and satisfaction, Christina made a second distinctive instructional decision. In the weeks following January’s flash mob, she encouraged her ED677 students to read and contribute to the Marginal Syllabus’ October text by Antero Garcia and Cindy O’Donnell-Allen. This marks the first time that a group has taken advantage of the curated feature of this syllabus and re/turned to a previous text to reinvigorate those layers of conversation. As this took place, I shared a few comments on Twitter about why this was notable:

I hope other educators follow Christina and ED677’s lead, and find useful perspectives and learning opportunities layered among the many texts and conversations curated within the Marginal Syllabus.

The Marginal Syllabus is both a OER and a source of OEP because some online platforms are particularly well-suited for architecting the technical and social conditions of collaborative and open learning. In this regard, the web annotation platform Hypothesis is an exemplar. Collaborative web annotation affords a repertoire of OEP, and the social practices afforded by collaborative web annotation have the potential to transform static online texts – whether news media or scholarship – into dynamic OER. As such, web annotation is a promising means for creating more open – and participatory – educational spaces, and the Marginal Syllabus’ advocacy and modeling of collaborative annotation-as-conversation is opening documents as new educational spaces for learning.

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