It’s a Real Thing: Open Pedagogy

About three years ago, I recreated my own domain. I had had a fairly extensive website back in the late 1990s, when Web 1.0 ruled the universe, but when I came to JMU in 2005, I found that faculty overwhelmingly used Blackboard and hid their syllabi and assorted pedagogical aids away from public sight. It has been interesting to watch the shift toward open ed occurring here in the last decade. As more and more faculty, generally the younger ones, experimented more and more with WordPress and Omeka and similar tools, I did, too. And as I added blogging assignments, digital exhibits, and web-based portfolios to my classes, I realized that it was high time to put my own self out there again. How could I ask my students to create their own domains and post their own work under their own names if I was not willing to do the same thing myself?

I admit that I’m still anxious about the kinds of privacy and surveillance issues that Audrey Watters raises in her recent keynote, Ed-tech in a Time of Trump, but that anxiety is now part of my approach to open pedagogy, which I understand to be a real thing, after all:

I love that you’re like ‘I didn’t know there was a name for it.’ There is a name for it, as soon as I pretend there’s a name for it. Open Ped is kind of in a phase where it’s becoming a thing, but it may or may not actually be a thing. I don’t know when you get to say something is a thing. Robin DeRosa

In my Introduction to Public History, students create their own web domains as their semester-long project. I have an undergraduate working with me, Edel Rimando, who is serving this semester as a fellow in the Digital Communication (DigiComm) Center. It’s a sweet deal: she is an effective peer mentor, since she is one of them, and she holds her own consultation hours in addition to leading three (three!) hands’ on workshops in class. The first time I assigned students to create websites I required them to use WordPress, which is my preferred platform, however, I was not comfortable enough with the myriad options to be an effective guide. The second time, I allowed them to choose between WordPress and Wix and Weebly, the drag-and-drop options that DigiComm recommends to first-timers. All of the students in that class chose Wix or Weebly, so this semester, that is what we (Edel and I) went with. I don’t use them and I don’t like them for all the reasons DeRosa notes in her interview, but they are user-friendly, efficient, and get the job done.


Last semester’s Intro to Public History class working on their domain projects.

The students have freedom to design their domains as they want. We discussed professional designs, branding, and so forth. We also discussed some basic ways to protect privacy. Each person has to have a simple resume and a biographical statement that explains what the site’s function will be. Is it merely to fulfill this class’s requirement or will he or she use it to curate excellent work from multiple classes? Many of my students are public history concentrators, so they have required internships for which they have to create a blog, which they can link to their domain. Other students are in the teaching licensure program and create links to lesson plans they have made, while others still are in graphic design and use their domains to showcase their commercial work. I have been amazed at the range of talents and projects that my students showcase on their domains–from photography to music videos to traditional research papers.

To meet the outcomes for public history the students must include two projects specific to this class’s content. The first is an analysis of a city block in downtown Harrisonburg; each student is assigned a section of an historic fire insurance map that documents how a block appeared ca 1960 and then she has to physically walk the block today paying attention to and interpreting changes in the cultural landscape from then to now. Although the students initially produce traditional written essays, they are actually generating content for their individual domains. Transforming that essay, with its written text and digital maps and photographs, into a webpage poses an interesting and instructive challenge that fits the open pedagogy model in the way it employs a learner-driven process and connects to the wider public. The assignment asks them to consider writing for a public audience instead of me, their professor, and to play with design and navigability among other things. By putting their work online they are clearly doing a kind of public history, although they understand that they are not doing digital public history in the sense of inviting the public to participate in the project or comment on their work. The project does not, in other words, involve the community itself, and I can only say “next time” to that criticism.


Rear view of Montpelier showing location of historic slave quarter, which is under reconstruction.

A second project that they must complete offers a different challenge. It involves a field trip to Montpelier, the home of James and Dolley Madision, which serves as a case study for many of the different branches of public history we study: historic preservation, historic house museums, exhibit design, virtual tourism,, archaeology. In effect, they choose a particular aspect of public history that appeals to them and they use their visit as an opportunity to explore how that aspect works at an actual historic site. Of course, they must then figure out to present their analyses on their domains. Although they have examples and a rubric, I try not to direct them too much. They need to feel ownership and have agency for the assignment to succeed.

As they build their sites they work with their fellow classmates, not just me and Edel. I requested and got approval to teach in one of JMU’s EPIC classrooms, which has six tables or pods seating six students each. During the regular class meetings, students plug their laptops into the various outlets and take turns projecting their screens to a wall-mounted monitor. As they work through in-class digital exercises and discuss readings, they have been building a sense of community that will serve them in good stead when they present their domains in the final weeks of class. These days have been scheduled well in advance and serve as design charettes. Each student’s URL will be added to a common Google doc so that the entire audience can navigate along with the presenter and provide feedback to be used prior to final submission for grading.

This assignment, well, this entire class isn’t nearly as open as it could be or I’d like it to be. In other classes I have experimented with different open pedagogical practices, baby-stepping my way toward something more radical. I appreciated reading about Robin DeRosa’s extreme makeover: pedagogy edition and seeing her candid acknowledgement of the time it takes to build your network of outsiders who are willing to participate in the students’ open learning experience. I also found it helpful to think about the tension between content transfer and skill development in many courses, especially upper-level ones in the major, as mine is. Content transfer has definitely taken a back seat to community building and students’ self-efficacy. My role is that of facilitator, and despite my worries about the risks (privacy, surveillance, trolls) associated with open learning, I find the whole open pedagogy thing energizing.


Open Learning, Digital Citizenship, & Political Citizenship

NOTE: For week three of the #OpenLearning17 cMOOC, I was supposed to read Doug Engelbart, Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework (excerpts online). But I got sidetracked, as I often do, by other readings. Imagine my surprise, however, to find Englebart everywhere I looked.

I’ve been recently thinking about the relationship between open learning, digital citizenship, and political citizenship. At JMU, I’ve been leading efforts to advance the civic engagement of our undergraduates and I’ve been involved in digital humanities work in the College of Arts and Letters. These interests grow out of my training in American Studies and public history, both of which are interdisciplinary endeavors that seek to involve ordinary Americans in shaping a more accurate, more sophisticated understanding of our shared past. In case it isn’t evident, American Studies scholars and public historians alike have been actively engaged online, whether digitizing collections, hosting MOOCs, or blogging about their work. In fact, I was motivated to join the #openlearninghub in part because I wanted to learn from academics doing digital work in other fields. How, I wonder, can we leverage the positive human relationships that many people build online to foster effective participation in the traditional modes of politics that undergird our representative democracy?


icitizen swag surrounds my James Madison bobblehead. It’s a real-time, digital polling tool that facilitates open communication and collaboration between citizens and their elected leaders to shape the policies that affect their lives.

The specific prompt was Autumm Caines’ blog post on digital citizenship (#digciz), which led me to her website and course syllabus. She argues that higher ed offers an important opportunity to help young people develop a better sense of their rights and responsibilities in digital environments. Her work put me in mind of another essay I was reading at the time, Joseph Kahne, Ellen Middaugh, and Danielle Allen, “Youth, New Media, and the Rise of Participatory Politics,” in From Voice to Influence (2015). All the evidence points to the growing power of digital networks for political organizing. Groups around the world are using new media, mobilizing applications like Twitter and Facebook to create protests as they did so effectively during the Arab Spring and the Women’s Marches. Evidence also indicates that young people are the ones most effectively using their digital networks for more than mere social interaction. They forward weblinks from Huffington Post, create and circulate political memes, like each others’ Instagram images, contribute to polls at icitizen, and sign online petitions at Unfortunately, young people are also the most disengaged from traditional political life, even as they constitute the largest single demographic.

To better understand youth activity online (and my own geezer brand of activity, lol), I have turned to the work of Howard Rheingold, the man who seems to have coined the term virtual communities. In particular, his adaptation of the concept of the panopticon to the digital world affirmed my own concerns about corporate surveillance, but his argument for greater mindfulness in Net Smart is even more intriguing. For Rheingold, online networks are not only essential to our private success (and personal empowerment), but the public good. He says, “I believe that learning to live mindfully in cyberculture is as important to us as a civilization as it is vital to you and me as individuals.” (NetSmart, p1)

For me, the common thread for these writers is connected learning. I wasn’t at all surprised to see that Rheingold cited Doug Engelbart, for example, or to find Henry Jenkins’ work on participatory culture in both Rheingold and Allen et al. Caines, similarly, teaches Rheingold in her #digciz course and is co-director of VConnecting, a global initiative that hosts informal virtual meetings between people attending academic conferences and those who can not attend. I confess I’m still trying to figure out how all these individuals and their ideas and their activities intersect, but so far they have inspired me to put together a draft syllabus for a course called Citizenship in the Digital Age. I’ll put details in a future post. For now, though, here are some of the salient bits:

Potential Readings

Foundational documents like the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, Federalist 10; as well as court cases

American Studies texts like: Crevecoeur, What is an American?; Emerson, The American Scholar;  DuBois

Essays by Danielle Allen, Howard Rheingold

Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone

For several  years now, I’ve had students posting to a common course blog and/or creating their own web domains (Shout out to my fellow Virginians over at University of Mary Washington and the Domain of One’s Own project). So this course also will include social media and new tools associated with “civictech,” such as icitizen and Ballotready and Turbovote.

If you have good ideas for other readings and assignments, please let me know.