Hacking My Education – how an online course sparked a real-world project

Original idea by ban0918 and ClockworkSoul Original design by brian0918 Original remastering by Antonu [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons
Idea by ban0918 and ClockworkSoul, design by brian0918, remastering by Antonu [CC-BY-SA-3.0]

For the past few weeks I have been taking an edX course called Leaders of Learning. I’ve been doing quite a few online courses recently; it’s a format that suits me well and fits around my peculiar hours. I’ve used Coursera, FutureLearn, edX and Khan Academy, all of which I can heartily recommend if you’re interested in studying flexibly. But this post is specifically about one course in particular so let’s get back to that.

I signed up to the Leaders of Learning course a while back, seeing it as an interesting way to keep up with some academic-style study over the summer and also as potentially relevant to my future career if I choose to go into teaching, policy development, change management or anything along those lines. It has turned out to be so much more than just that!

The course began by introducing us to different quadrants of learning styles, grouped along two axes – distributed to hierarchical (i.e, individually motivated vs guided by a designated leader) and individual to collective. The hierarchical individual quadrant is, broadly speaking, most easily recognisable in the standard school system. The hierarchical collective could be represented by a sports team with a coach, the distributed collective by unconferences, and the distributed individual by home educated children taking a delight-directed/unschooling approach. These are very broad-brush-strokes examples and there’s considerable overlap between quadrants but I hope that gives you a rough understanding of what I’m talking about.

When I started the course, I had an immediate strong sense that I fall very solidly into the distributed individual quadrant. I prefer choosing what I want to learn, when and how I learn it, and doing so alone. It’s why I take online courses in the first place – I track down things that look interesting, or I identify areas I want to learn more about and I find resources to help me do that.

It’s why I sometimes struggle with my current degree, which is substantially rooted in the hierarchical individual quadrant. I don’t like sitting through Powerpoint-presentation based lectures or doing group discussion activities. I chafe against being required to produce pieces of work that don’t remotely suit my own learning style – drawing a poster to represent my journey to midwifery, for instance, or making a plasticene model of a pelvis. They’re not bad ways to learn, in fact they are excellent ways for people who learn best through kinesthetic activities or group discussions, but they are not my ways to learn. However, I am trying to get better at participating enthusiastically and genuinely, and finding a way to make the methods work for me, because the end goal is one I very much want to achieve.

Despite this clear preference for a particular learning approach, as the course progressed I began to notice ideas sparking in my mind which were less about the distributed individual segment and more about the distributed collective. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that they related to a fusion of the two – self-directed learners meeting together in a group to collectively enhance their individual pursuits. I began to hanker for a community of like-minded people who also love following their interests down a rabbit warren of side alleys and being in charge of what they learn about and how.

So after a few days of dithering, thinking, planning and doubting, I took the plunge and set up a Meetup group to provide exactly that. I found it hard to write a description of what the group would be, because essentially it will be whatever the members want it to be, but in essence I hope it will become a real-life community for people learning in ways that don’t naturally come with their own pre-existing community. Then I spent the next two weeks agonising over whether anyone would actually join and praying that I hadn’t just thrown away a fair wodge of money by paying organiser fees for a group no one would come to.

My fears were unfounded, however. So far the group has 19 members and more than half of them will be coming to our first event this weekend, where we’ll meet each other, get to know everyone’s interests and approaches, and talk about what sort of events we might hold in the future. I’ve already scheduled a couple – a study date for people to get together and work in companionable silence, and a discussion morning over coffee to share ideas and debate issues. The fact that all the members are studying in different fields and have different backgrounds will only make it more interesting, in my view! I’m also hoping that some of the group members might join me at TEDx Brum in November (I don’t yet have a ticket but will be hovering over my laptop when the next batch of tickets goes on sale on Monday).

It’s a rather pleasing symmetry that the course which set me on the track of establishing this group has now released its closing assignment: to design an ideal learning environment (virtual, physical or a combination of both) and explain how it relates to our personal theory of learning. Naturally I’m going to write about my goals and ambitions for the group, and I hope that the process of completing the assignment will help me to refine my plans for its future in the same way that I hope the group will help me refine my approach to my learning in general.

The whole thing has got me fired up with enthusiasm for the future of learning, mine specifically and more broadly, and given me a project that will expand or contract to fill my available time whilst also providing a welcome and encouraging distraction when I am feeling disheartened about my degree.

My next post on this blog will be my submission for the assignment, which will be peer graded by other participants on the course, but I’d love to have feedback from blog readers as well! The fact that this has turned out not to just be a theoretical exercise but a practical tool to help me hone something I am doing in “real life” makes it even more exciting!

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