Open and Accessibile Education

Laura Tilghman

Summer 2019


This summer and coming academic year I am very lucky to be a part of the Cluster Pedagogy Learning Community (CPLC) at Plymouth State University. This is a large (70+!) group of faculty and staff at my small-ish university coming together to learn, think, discuss, and enact different ideas about learning and teaching. Or as someone more eloquent than me explained, the CPLC is “ a dynamic and emergent initiative designed to support current pedagogy-related university projects, align campus efforts to innovate around curriculum and instruction, and refocus institutional efforts on teaching and learning.”

(Why “cluster” in the title of this group? This links to an initiative to reorganize my university administratively and academically into interdisciplinary clusters, which began in Fall 2015. This also happened to be my first year at PSU, so in practice I have no experience teaching fulltime at a university that is not undergoing massive change. I am sure there is something to be written about how that has shaped my views of teaching and higher ed!)

In practice, there are 3 tracks of the CPLC: one for faculty who are just generally interested in rethinking teaching and learning, one for faculty working with first-semester students to tackle Wicked Problems in a project-based learning format, and one for faculty focused on open education in all its guises. I am part of the third group, and because of that got to participate in the USNH Academic Technology Institute in May 2019. In practice, there is actually a lot of overlap between these three groups, and over the summer we met all together to share and learn from each other.

This post is my attempt to think through how I came to be involved in the CPLC, what I have learned so far from my experiences, and what I hope to do in the coming academic year.

Stumbling and Fumbling – where I am coming from

I got a PhD in Anthropology primarily so that I could be a college professor. I had TA-ed as an undergraduate student, leading discussion sections for a large lecture course, and loved the experience.

But although you need a PhD to teach college students, the dirty secret is that most PhD programs don’t actually formally train you how to do that. Sure, you might TA for someone and learn on the job, but the main focus of my program – and most anthropology programs in the US – was training me to be a researcher. (Since I love doing qualitative research, this was not entirely bad, though led to a mismatch between the focus of my graduate training and the reality of my career goals.)

During my PhD, I took courses in research design, methods, and analysis … but no courses in course design, teaching methods, student assessment. Furthermore, teaching was openly viewed as a distraction from graduate coursework and dissertation completion. When I won fellowships that relieved me from TA duties, this was applauded and never seen as a detriment to my training as a future college professor.

Cut to Fall 2015. I was a new hire at Plymouth State University, teaching two courses that I had never taught before. I was so excited, nervous, overwhelmed, grateful. A lot of how I designed my courses and approached my students in my first year or so was focused on negative behavior: cheating, plagiarism, truancy, tardiness, laziness. I adopted policies in my syllabus from other professors that I had taken classes from myself or who were my new colleagues, all without much thought.

Of course late work gets points deducted. Of course participation grades are based on how much and how well students speak up. Of course some students will cheat if you let them get away with it. Of course you assess student learning with research papers and exams.

Looking back at the syllabi from my first classes at PSU, there is a lot “expect the best, prepare for the worst” in them. I loved and thought highly of my students, but so much of my policies showed that I was preparing for some of them to disappoint me and punish them for it. I’d like to think that my demeanor in the classroom mitigated some of this finger-waving language, but I don’t really know.

The pluriverse of Open Education – key takeaways so far

“The most significant problem with education today is the problem of significance itself. Students – our most important critics – are struggling to find meaning and significance in their education.”

 Mike Wesch, Anti-Teaching: Confronting the Crisis of Significance, in Education Canada Vol. 48 No. 2. 2008

The emphasis of open pedagogy can’t be on how we copyright, license, and share content. That can be one tiny piece, but it’s a mostly metaphorical one, and an offshoot of the deeper and more necessary social justice work: seeing students as full humans, as agents, not customers.

 Jesse Stommel, Textbooks, OER, and the Need for Open Pedagogy, in An Urgency of Teachers. 2018

When the CPLC was announced in Spring 2019, I immediately wanted to get involved. I had already been tinkering with my course designs and syllabi to make my courses more meaningful for students. And I was searching for a way to make PSU’s Cluster initiative meaningful for me.

When I joined the Open Education track at the CPLC, I was familiar with some of the tools of open education. I had adopted various OER (Open Educational Resources) such as The Art of Being Human and Perspectives, two free online open-access textbooks for introductory anthropology. I had also experimented with more hands-on engaging assignments: my students tried conducting ethnographic research projects with an audience outside the classroom, or writing website articles instead of traditional research papers. The side of Open Education that I was less familiar with was the values and philosophy underlying these tools, rooted in social justice, equity, and accessibility.

What the CPLC has provided me with so far is a way to connect how I teach with what content-knowledge or skills I am teaching.

When preparing this post, I went back and read my teaching statement from my application materials to PSU. (eek!) Here’s some of what I said:

My goal in instruction is to demonstrate how the knowledge, skills, and attitudes that students gain in my classes have significant intellectual and practical value for solving challenges facing our world and our daily lives.

My teaching statement from spring 2015

I think I still agree with that for the most part. I want students in my classes to think that their time with me is meaningful, whether or not they are an anthropology major.

And yet. If the arcane policies I have adopted about late assignments or attendance make students feel unwelcome or fail to recognize that they have lives outside of school, how meaningful can my class be to them? If laptop and cellphone bans make students with disabilities who have an accommodation around that ban feel outed to their classmates, how meaningful can my class be to them? If my assignments prioritize only one way of demonstrating knowledge and are never seen by anyone except me, how meaningful can my class be to them?

The CPLC thus far has allowed me to connect to others on my campus and a wider movement of higher education folks trying to make college/university more accessible, equitable, and meaningful to students.

Visions of the Future – plans for the 2019-2020 academic year

Thinking ahead, I am excited to put into action some of the ideas I have been exposed to as part of my involvement with the CPLC into my classes this coming academic year.

My “official” Open Education project for the CPLC will not take place until the spring 2020 semester, when I have my students in AN3120 Anthropology of Migration create web-based content to educate New Hampshire residents about the resettled refugees living in our towns and neighborhoods.

In the meantime, I am incorporating some new things into my fall 2019 courses that align with the values of Open Education: allowing for more student choice and voice, providing more opportunities for feedback and revision and less hard and fast graded assignments, and rethinking the whole concept (and grade calculation!) of participation in my courses.

I am also excited about the last “C” of the CPLC: the community. (This is something that my colleague Cathie LeBlanc also wrote about recently.) Being a professor can be a lonely job, and most of the time I do spend with colleagues is in meetings that have little relation to the actual day-to-day of my job: teaching and helping students. The opportunity to attend workshops and other events with my fellow CPLC-ers is really invigorating. (A discussion just on ungrading? Swoooon!)

“Nature Cat” from PBS Kids

Now that I have a twitter account (with the encouragement of the CPLC), community can also mean something much bigger. I can have conversations about open education and pedagogy with hundreds of people online. And I am able to connect with other anthropologists who care deeply about these issues, which is especially helpful since I am the only cultural anthropologist on my campus.

In short, I am really looking forward to this academic year, and the CPLC is a big part of why.


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Cluster Learning at Plymouth State: A Community-Based Approach to Pedagogy Copyright © 2019 by Laura Tilghman is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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