What in the World is Open Learning? A Student’s Tale

Categories Full Spectrum Learning Research

I had the incredible opportunity to participate in the Critical Open Pedagogy Track at Digital Pedagogy Lab 2019. Open Pedagogy/Learning can be an incredibly complex topic to understand, and I think it is easily dismissed by the academic community because of this lack of understanding. However, there are an incredible benefit to students and I will try to share my new knowledge of how it can benefit students using my unique perspective of being a student.

Simple Definition

Open Learning is the art of professors and students actively collaboratively learning together through projects while using open resource materials.

Many Different Parts of the Open

Through the course of this week I have discovered there are three main aspects that have stuck out to me about the open: full collaboration, free access to textbooks, and project based learning. These aren’t the only options and ideas of the open, these are just the ones that resonated with me.

Full Collaboration

The main part of my experience in the open has been based on the full collaboration of professors and students. During my first year at the college, I have been involved in a Full Spectrum Learning [LINK] (FSL) Research Fellowship and it is my first truly open experience. The working group is truly collaborative with each member always feeling free to express their opinions and ideas. I never felt like it was professor over student, but instead we were all equals; that is one of the most important parts about open learning and collaboration. A major point of open learning means that the professors and students are learning together to reach a common goal.

Free Access to Textbooks

One of the most well-known aspects of Open Pedagogy in my experience has been Open Educational Resources (OERs) or free access to textbooks/course materials. However, this is the one main point of Open Pedagogy I have not experienced or explored, because my open experience didn’t first happen in a class, it happened through my fellowship. Open access means that the textbooks are free, which is appealing to students, but it can create problems for professors (see challenges). These textbooks can be created by professors using open source materials, but they can also be created in collaboration with the students using project learning.

Project Learning

The most intriguing part of the open for me is project based learning. This concept means that students work on a collaborative formative project instead of other means of assessment (a test for example). This also allows for more general course assignments and freedom for students to make the projects reflect their work and show more of their personality through their work.

The main example of this combines OERs and Project Learning by having students create their own open sourced textbook for the class. Each student can help create a chapter of the book and be the “expert” on that chapter and throughout the class they can go through different revisions to help grow the book. Students can then help to teach others about their specific topic. This project can help the future years of students as they can continue to build on the first version of the textbooks. 

Another example at St. Norbert would be to use the domains project to help center student learning. The extreme example that would help focus project learning throughout the student experience would be having students use domains throughout their entire four year program. Even having individual classes embrace domains and allowing for a general framework for a project, and then students can form the project into their own creation and let their creativity show. Students having their own domain allows them to have a space that they can fully create into their own place on the web.

As a student, having more hands-on and project learning like this is really appealing to me; this really takes owning the learning to the next level. These projects give students the freedom to let their personality show in their work and it goes beyond the end of the class, it is something that can continue to grow and help others.

Why Should We Care/Benefits to Students

So you may be thinking “Why does this matter to me?” And honestly and simply from the student perspective, it is because I hope you care about us, the students. 

Truly Unique Experience

In an earlier blog post, I wrote about the 10 most valuable learning experiences [LINK] I had during my first year of college. What I learned while reflecting, is that most of these learning experiences hadn’t happened in the classroom, but instead through my research fellowship because of how unique of an experience it truly is. The research fellowship is the perfect example of open pedagogy; each person on the team is an equal and we are able to help advance the initiative by each sharing our ideas.

Students are More Invested

Personally, my biggest investment in Open Learning is the opportunity for my assignments to live past the end of the course. I can’t express how disheartening it is to work hours and hours on assignments just to know that I will be given a grade and maybe feedback and that assignment will be thrown out forever. With open learning, students are working with professors on projects collaboratively on projects with the goal being student work continuing to help the next class of students. As a student, I know I would work much harder on an assignment that I knew would continue after my grade, or especially if it would be published in the open for any class to use. Students also are given more freedom with their assignments and it allows them to ultimately pick the outcome of the course.

Little to No Textbook Cost

Hands down, the biggest benefit to students is the open resource textbooks and materials because they are all free. Due to the large amount that textbooks cost students, many students are deciding to let their grades take a hit instead of their bank accounts. This graph shows research from the Florida Virtual Campus about how the price of textbooks impacts students.

Students are already struggling through thousands of dollars of debt to even attend class, and then have to shell out hundreds or even thousands of dollars for textbooks for ONE semester. Having resources in the open can really help students who may not want to admit that they have an issue of paying for materials.

Closer to the Working World

When a student graduates and gains a job, they are going to be working mainly in open learning. They will be working to accomplish projects in groups of people to help the company to succeed. Very few or none of their assignments will ever be thrown out, they are all helping the company to grow. Very few times will a worker be in a lecture situation, but instead they will have responsibility in that project.


Of course there are going to be challenges when implementing this type of learning. If there weren’t most people would already be on board!

Lack of Resources

The main challenge for faculty to implement this in their own classes is a lack of resources. This can come in the form of time, money, or open resources.

In order for professors to have time, an option would be asking your university for a course release. Obviously not every university is going to drop everything and let you do this. 

Another solution to these problems is to have your students draft the textbook. I outlined this solution a bit above, but teaching students about open resources and copyright issues (reach out to your librarians to help!) and then working directly with them to each become experts in certain topics for the class and then allowing students to work with the professor to find a way to show/teach the rest of the class about their assigned topic. This means that the professor would not have to take valuable time to draft their own textbook but instead have students own their own learning.

Lack of Willingness to Change

Many people that I have encountered are always worried to fail and don’t want to change. However, if this year has taught me anything, it is that most of my most valuable learning experiences happened when I took a chance and jumped out of my comfort zone. Sure, I was terrified and didn’t really know what I was doing, but I just trusted the process. 

Students might not understand what is happening, simply because they have never experienced this type of learning. I was so used to being told what to do, that I felt uncomfortable planning my own goals and initiatives for my fellowship. However, now I feel like I am in control of my own learning and each person on the team is able to trust each other.

Even if the class doesn’t go perfectly according to plan, there is a large chance that at least one student will be impacted by the new way of teaching. Opening up a dialogue with the students about what is impactful and what is helping them is also crucial to the process. The class should be forever changing and shaping to the student’s needs.

Accessibility Issues

The major concern of open materials in open learning is the accessibility issues that can appear. This can come in a variety of forms; anything from lack of internet, to language barriers, to learning disabilities.

Internet connection can be a major issue, especially for rural communities. Personally, I didn’t have internet growing up, simply because of the location I lived at. Now, at school I constantly have internet, but if a student lives off-campus, this may not be the case. Many open classes are focused online, and making sure that you provide a safe and welcoming environment for students to talk about the issues they may have is important. However, not all students may want to admit this, and that is okay too. Making sure that there is a backup plan, such as a printable or handwritable textbook is also important.

Another issue that can appear is a language barrier. Making sure that each activity and reading is available in multiple different languages is important to make students know that they are supported in the class. Many large platforms, such as PressBooks, allows multiple languages while it is embedded in your site.

Learning disabilities can also be an obstacle in learning. Online books are great for some students, but can be challenging for some; the blind, for example. Having accessibility tags and having a platform that supports audio accessibility and other disabilities can make the classroom feel more welcoming for many students. If you are at all concerned, talk to your librarians or reach out to someone else you are close to that you can look to as an example.

Overall, just allowing for a welcoming and safe atmosphere for students is important to making them feel safe and welcome and like they belong in the classroom. Students should feel like they are allowed to bring their full selves into the class, just as professors should be bringing their full selves in the classroom as well. Above all else, please remember your students are humans first. As another student, Ruthie Tucker said, “It’s about making knowledge more accessible to all students”

Privacy Issues

One of the biggest concerns with work being in the open, is people who are trying to stay hidden. There are some people who should not have their work it the open; an extreme example of this would be a person involved in a domestic abuse case trying to remain in hiding. It is important to have a conversation about what being in the open means with the students in the class and how accessible their information and assignments might be.

While looking through a Twitter chat on this topic, I stumbled upon a tweet from Sarah Honeychurch (@NomadWarMachine) saying “Options rather than opt outs.” Only showing students an opt out can make it feel like they are trying to get out of the original assignment and can feel disconnected from the group. Having students have options and explaining why they chose this option can make students feel like they are more in control of the assignment instead of being told they can do the assignment or something different.

Lack of Understanding

Personally, I think the biggest problem that Open Learning is facing is a lack of understanding around the topic. I am hoping that blog posts like these or just more information about the open in general can help to gain knowledge. I think a lot of professors are doing parts of Open Learning without actually knowing about it!


There are many resources available to both professors and students to help promote and use these practices in the classroom!


The newest tool I have learned about is Hypothesis. This lets you annotate online articles and PDFs either in a private group or in the public. This tool can really help cut down on paper annotations that are currently happening and save time, money, and resources. I have not explored this tool much further, but I am excited to see how it can help me in the future.


Another tool that I haven’t explored yet, but have heard very good things about is PressBooks. PressBooks is very similar to WordPress and used to be a plug-in for WordPress. PressBooks is an open source publishing application that allows books to be shared across the web. It lets you easily create and design a  book of information. This tool is great for classes that want to work on an open source textbook together.

Domain of One’s Own (DoOO)

An initiative on St. Norbert’s campus that is helping to promote this different type of learning is Knight Domains. This allows each student to claim ownership of their own domain while they are a student. The professor could each have students write about different topics and then use Hypothesis to annotate each student’s topics. This would help students to grow in their digital skills and introduce them to more platforms they may have not discovered yet.

Closing Notes

The major point to make about Open Learning is you don’t have to jump into the deep end. Any small change you can make towards this type of learning can really impact students. Please always be open to feedback from students and help them to realize that they don’t always have to be perfect and it is okay to fail right alongside you. Growth is important for students, but also the professor. I am thankful I have had this experience of learning that not many students get to experience; I hope that I can inspire professors to be open about what works for their students and allowing them to have this different type of learning.

Thank you to Ruthie Tucker for being my partner in crime and fellow Research Fellow and helping me to conceptualize all of my crazy thoughts.

1 thought on “What in the World is Open Learning? A Student’s Tale

  1. This is a powerful and deep reflection Cassie that articulates many of the concepts we worked on at DPL. This post is evidence of your understanding of these ideas. Your expression of these ideas will be helpful in sharing the concept of open pedagogy with faculty and students. Thank you for being brave and taking the risk to participate in FSL and DPL, your voice is important.

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