Introducing the new culture of learning

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open source lightning talks

Education is broken, but there is a new culture of learning gaining traction, according to Sebastian Dziallas, a student at the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering.

He describes how fluid learning (departing from the 20th century "stable" structure) is first seeing what's going on (hanging out), then sticking your feet in the water (messing around), and finally getting deeply involved (geeking out).

Dziallas describes his college, and all other learning programs that adopt an open source culture, as communities of practice comprised of teachers who encourage students to experiment, question and play.

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So how is this interaction happening at Olin? Are courses being designed around this culture? Or are faculty creating this atmosphere outside of normal class time? I have always felt that more faculty interaction made a better program. How are the faculty encouraged to participate?

Sebastian can speak to this more cogently, but the short version of my take: it's not a specific course, series of courses, or even pedagogical technique that makes the culture -- it's the underlying values and assumptions of the community.

Open source communities have things like "default to open" and "be bold" as underlying values, so practices like "release early and often" naturally follow from that.

Similarly, I'd say that one of Olin's values is "students are trustworthy stewards of their own learning," which leads to faculty designing very open-ended courses, getting invited to club meetings, having nearly a third of all graduating students design their own degree options, seeing student experimentation and failure as a reflection and learning opportunity rather than a reason to go on academic probation, etc. compared to an underlying assumption "students can't be trusted to learn the right things" which might manifest in things like "only take this required sequence of classes" or "here's the syllabus of the information you will receive from me because I'm the expert and I say so" and other things designed to "keep those uninformed/witless/clueless/immature students from messing up."

I see a similar sort of trust in healthy open source communities. You're assumed to have the intent of helpfulness and a willingness to learn and cooperate unless proven otherwise, not treated with wary suspicion as someone who might be Wasting People's Time (unless proven otherwise). Useful until proven a jackass vs useless until proven useful.

As for how faculty are encouraged to participate -- I do know that faculty evaluations are done on a somewhat different criteria than most places -- things like designing curricula, writing books, running outreach workshops, consulting, etc. count as "intellectual vitality" which I believe is an alternative to just publishing research papers. From what I've heard, this is a relatively recent policy change to allow faculty to "get credit" for the stuff they're doing that doesn't fit into the traditional constraints of research/teaching/service. But they were certainly doing it before. Enthusiasm? Self-reinforcing culture (everyone else around you does it and supports it too?)

I'm an alumna of the 2nd class, so I'm rather biased; this isn't an utopia, by any means. People fail, classes explode, folks drop out and burn out, experimental things go awry, hastily-constructed policies crack under strain. But I think that also points to an openness to change as another underlying value that makes these cool things possible -- and that's something that needs to be strongly reinforced by the top down. It's okay to take risks and fail; as long as you learn, you'll be rewarded for the trying.

So I guess my next question is how do you maintain any structure? Employers expect students to have certain skills when they get certain degrees. How do you ensure that students meet an expected criteria in their educational progress? Are the engineering programs ABET accredited? How do you propose a variable educational path to the State Board of Education?

Unfortuneately many schools only recognize publishing as a measure of faculty worth. RIT used to be focused on providing the best hands-on education we could. Now we have decided to become a premier research institution. Sadly, that will probably be at the expense of our educational values.

I agree that students should be more involved in planning their own education. In the 10+ years I have spent at RIT, the best students were always the ones who sought knowledge on their own without having to always be led.

Olin's ABET accredited, yes. There's structure in that there are certain class and credit requirements (and there are grades), but compared to most engineering schools it's a far more customizable program. Keep in mind that it's a tiny school; with only 300-ish students you end up with tiny class sizes. 30 is considered huge; I'd put the "normal" size at anywhere from 6 to 25 (the latter already feels "big" to me). There's room for individual variation and mentoring.

The interesting thing is that only 1/3 of Olin graduates end up entering engineering industry directly -- another 1/3 do some form of graduate study in STEM (meaning that they've got a nice-looking API for employers with the traditional mindset -- and although that's not why my classmates went to grad school for, it *is* a side effect!) and the final 1/3 dive off into something else entirely -- theatre, medicine, business studies, getting a startup together, teaching, travel...

So I think the question answers itself partially because Olin students enter the school tending to think "okay, I want to take an unorthodox path anyway, and I'm going to have to learn to explain myself to everybody, and will probably be creating/writing most of the job descriptions that I fill."

It's been true for me and for a good number of my friends, though definitely not an universal experience.

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