One of the very unique experiences that I have had this year happened earlier this month. From August 4th – 9th I was able to attend Digital Pedagogy Lab in Virginia at the University of Mary Washington. This was an incredible learning experience that I was honored to have the opportunity to attend, and wish more students could also have this experience.
Three words drove the experience of this conference for me: Overwhelming. Reflective. Hopeful.
A major feeling I had the whole week was feeling overwhelmed with topics, jargon, and just how much information was being thrown at me, but by the end of the week it all settled down and I was able to better experience and learn.
The conference helped me to do a lot of reflecting on my life, especially in the past year. I was really able to connect with schools across the country and learn how lucky I am to attend St. Norbert with the opportunities that I have had in my first year. On the plane ride home I really reflected on how much I have learned and how far I have come since starting school less than a year ago; a delayed plane and little sleep will make you a little bit delirious and help with that.
One of the major themes that I saw with the conference was the hope of the future of education. Sure, many things in the educational system are corrupt, but I believe that the community that attended this conference will do anything in its power to hold on and fix that system. It may be an endless battle, but the more the community of educators grows and sticks together, the better shape we will be in.
Here is a more indepth perspective of what it is like to be one of the only students at this conference.
The “Student Perspective”
Being one of the only students at the conference, I was tasked with trying to show and provide the “Student Perspective” of the conference. At the beginning of the week, I felt a lot of pressure to be able to know all the answers and be able to explain how each student feels. I eventually learned that this wasn’t the case at all; they just wanted to hear our thoughts. No two students are the same and most students today are not even the “traditional” college student.
One thing that I really struggled with was understanding the concepts. One professor described it as, “Entering into a graduate level class on a topic you didn’t really understand to start.” Especially because I chose the track I was in because I didn’t understand it and wanted to learn more about it. Monday was overwhelming, but Tuesday is when I crashed and burned. Luckily, later in the week I felt more inclined to speak up when I didn’t understand and did get a lot out of the course.
I was able to participate in a Virtually Connecting session with a few other students, mainly graduate students. These students also expressed their confusion and hardships of their classes; it was really nice to hear they were struggling (that sounds bad), but then I knew that I wasn’t alone. Honestly, I felt a bit dumb because I didn’t understand everything, but realized that the purpose isn’t to understand everything, it is to connect with so many in the community and learn together.
Differences for Students
I would say the biggest difference for me as a student is it just was language I really wasn’t used to. Almost all of the participants in my cohort were experts or at least had multiple years of experience in the field. The first few days were really spent understanding different topics and terms associated with Open Learning. The other difficulty is that many terms in Open Learning don’t have a clear and simple definition; they are usually long and complex, just like the ideas.
The other major differences for the students are age and experience. Now this may seem obvious, but most of the other students were graduate students. This means they were at least three years older than I am. That doesn’t seem like a lot; however, I have only been in college in these types of atmospheres for one year. Being exposed to this for at least four full years would make an incredibly large difference in my understanding. Even after one week in that environment, I feel like I understand so much more about Open Pedagogy and the education system in general.
This conference is an incredibly unique experience for any student, but especially a rising sophomore undergraduate. The major problem I think I will encounter after the conference is how to bring this information back to the campus. Personally, I feel like blogging is the best idea for me to start opening conversations with professors on how this type of learning has shaped my experience and the ways to implement it. The other hardship of the conference is understanding that everyone at the conference may be on board with this solution, but the same struggles we faced before the conference will more than likely continue to remain when we leave. This sounds pessimistic (and it is), but it is important to understand that the world doesn’t magically change (sadly). Now, in saying that, I think conferences are incredibly important to understand the problems that other schools are facing and to grow a community of support. The problems might not be magically fixed, but you may now be able to lean on someone from a different university to help you solve that problem.
Main (Sad) Takeaways
I have many ideas and takeaways from this conference. Sadly, not everything at this conference was sunshine and rainbows; I also heard the dark side to the higher education systems across the country.
The most shocking thing to me was how hard it can be to create this change. The mass amount of stories I heard about no administration listening to professors and taking their work for granted was absolutely heartbreaking. Compared to other universities around the world, I feel like St. Norbert is more open to change and listening to more of its faculty and students. I am not saying that we are perfect, believe me no college is, but I feel like the smaller school allows for more communication across departments and levels of administration.
Lack of Access in Other Countries
One surprising issue that I feel completely ignorant about is the access issues in other countries. On Tuesday, our track had the incredible opportunity to video call Maha Bali. She talked about a lot of the apps and other platforms that are not available in her home country of Egypt. She teaches at an American University there, but still encounters the stricter rules about the government and what she can talk about. I was completely taken aback by some of the problems she mentioned that I would have never imagined, and that I take for granted each and every day.
How Open Access Isn’t Always the Best
Another powerful activity we had the chance to work on was the challenges and strategies of open learning. This was a bit of a disheartening activity, because the main goal was to be incredibly critical of the teaching method and idea that we were spending the whole week trying to promote. However, I did really learn a lot from this activity and now have a few ideas to try to talk to faculty who claim they can’t do it. This could be because of lack of resources (especially time) or just a pure level of confusion.
This Also Brought Up How Some Students Don’t Want Everything In The Open And How Professors Need To Approach That. I Explained This More In My Last Blog: What In The World Is Open Learning? A Student’s Tale.
Dark Side of Textbooks
The most shocking fact I learned is that most professors who write and collaborate on textbooks usually don’t get paid. They can occasionally get compensated, but it is usually only about 5 to 8 percent of the sales. Other professors, usually at larger colleges may receive grants to help them write the book, but many are just left to fend for themselves. If the money isn’t going to to the professor who wrote the book, who is stealing college student’s valuable money?
I also learned about how many students struggle with textbook prices. It is no secret that college textbooks are incredibly expensive; many students after paying thousands and thousands for tuition can no longer afford textbooks. Some students just decide not to by the textbook and let their grades suffer, or try to transfer into a different class.
I had a few major lessons that I was able to learn during this conference. The major two were being able to admit when you are confused, and it’s okay to take a break.
The first lesson for me has always been a problem. I never like to admit that I can’t do everything and it usually just leaves me stressed and upset with no one other than myself. This conference the first few days when I was struggling I didn’t want to admit I didn’t understand anything, but instead I stayed true to myself and pretended that everything would be okay. Quickly, I learned that if I wanted to get anything out of this experience I needed to suck it up and admit that I was confused. I was able to reach out to one of our smaller groups, and they helped me understand some of the terms and items I was utterly confused on. Each one of them were all so incredibly helpful and empathic explaining that they would have never understood any of this at the age of 19. Soon after that, I was able to start understanding many items much better, and all because I sucked up my pride and asked for help.
Secondly, with all of this new information, I realized the importance of a good break. There were a few points in the day, usually after lunch, when my brain would just shut down for a bit. I would be confused about the tiniest things and would feel frustrated by not understanding what I just worked so hard to understand. However, a bathroom or water break, a walk around the floor, and a good song to center myself always did the trick. This is one lesson that I am hoping to start applying to my everyday life. I have a very bad habit of pretending everything is okay and pushing myself each day to exhaustion by doing so many activities that I very rarely breathe and actually live the life I have worked so hard to create.
Robin DeRosa’s Keynote was incredibly impactful for me coming from a different perspective. It was heartbreaking to hear the stats and stories, but I was just appalled that I had no idea any of this was happening. One major takeaway from both conferences I have been able to attend this summer is how much of a bubble I am in. I have quickly learned that life is much different at St. Norbert than the rest of the world. I have struggled with this a lot. I am so lucky and blessed I get to go to such an incredible university and have the opportunities I am having, but I hear these stories from other universities and feel crushed.
My favorite quote of the conference was from Noemi Bartolucci during the Friday opening remarks. It went something like this, “Bask in uncertainty because those moments are when you learn the most.” This quote really hit me and made me think of this past year because it really framed my past year perfectly. Almost all of my experiences I have had this past year were things I never thought I would experience. The FSL fellowship is the major example, but even experiences in my faith and in classes are nothing like I had expected. My biggest insecurity is my inability to trust people, especially in my faith. Each time I read this quote I step back for a second and breathe in and out and relax and try to trust.
I am also incredibly thankful that I was able to experience this conference with another student by my side and we were able to bounce ideas off each other and most importantly laugh it off when we were lost together and try to pick up the pieces of our brain.