Open Master’s Spring Reflection

Last week I gave a presentation to some of my Open Master’s peers over dinner in DC to share what I’ve been up to this semester, what I’ve learned and accomplished, and where I’m heading.

I have summarized some of the bigger updates and reflections below.  You can find a lot more detail, stories, and Q&A with my peers in the recording above (table of contents at 45 seconds).

In February, I went on tour with Educate 2020 across the US.  We were working on changing the narrative about the future of higher ed to a more positive a hopeful one.  Along the way, we interviewed more than forty inspiring innovators in higher ed.  Aside from what I learned from the interviews, I also learned that interviewing is fun, in general, and that I would love to do more of it!  Interviewing might even become a tool I call on more often as a vehicle for my learning goals.

Among the other themes that emerged from the tour, I have become passionate about telling the stories of the many, inspiring self-directed learners we discovered along the way, and of the things in the world supporting them, both inside and outside institutions.

In particular, I’ve been especially inspired by all of the examples we found of students taking their education into their own hands within institutions.  For example:

  • Student-led courses – e.g. programs such as DeCal at UC Berkley– which has been offering support for student-designed, student-led courses for credit since 1967- as well as programs like Student Initiated Courses at Truman State and Flash Seminars at the University of Virginia.
  • Student-designed majors – e.g. Rachel Thor, the tour manager for Educate 2020, actually made Educate 2020 her senior thesis, as part of her own self-designed major on alternative education at Penn State (through the Bachelor of Philosophy Program).  For some universities, students designing their own majors has been part of their institutional DNA since the beginning- such as Brown’s Open Curriculum.  But nearly every university seems to have an option for students to create their own courses of study, if you know where to look for it.  I am inspired to think that this type of thing might become more the norm as structured majors become less meaningful to students- and to the world they are entering- and as students realize the opportunity that creates for them to take more initiative for their own learning path.

I was also really inspired by some of the examples we found on Educate 2020 of university transformation from within, and by the changemakers who led those changes.

For example, I’ve been telling everyone I meet lately about the incredible transition the University of Virginia School of Medicine went through recently, and how they did it.  In 2009 the school made a bold transition from a medical curriculum that has changed very little in more than a hundred years- based on lectures in siloed disciplines- to a very integrative and interactive approach in which students are actively applying knowledge in problem-solving teams in a giant round, facilitated “learning studio” and are forced to deal with real-life scenarios from day one in an advanced patient simulation center.

The amazing thing to me was not just that they did it, but that they did it in just eighteen months– including rewriting the curriculum, supporting professors and teaching support staff through the big switch, and even moving the entire program into a new physical space to support the new curriculum.  In fact, the Dean who led the charge told us that it probably wouldn’t have been possible any other way; it had to happen quickly or it never would, because the change agents within the School would burn out and lose energy before seeing it through, otherwise.

It takes incredible leadership to bring about changes like this, but the examples I’ve seen through Educate 2020 have given me hope that institutions can and will be changed from within in some pretty amazing ways in the coming years.  The only variables are what each of their unique new visions will be, and when and how they will each make the move.

In March and April I carried on my travels to Europe to 1) work with the new Open Master’s group getting started in the Netherlands, 2) to help out with a new startup called The Journey Network that is inviting travelers to use their travels more intentionally as an opportunity for personal discovery, and 3) to speak at a student-led social entrepreneurship conference in Sweden called the Initiative Forum.  Before and after the trip to Europe, I also spoke at TEDxFurmanU, TEDxUVA, and the AshokaU Exchange, and I facilitated two student social entrepreneurship retreats through the Sullivan Foundation.

Despite the fact that my path has felt like such a winding one this year, the amazing thing to note is that I have actually stayed incredibly on-track with the original plan I wrote down for my Open Master’s back in August, 2012.  I have made great strides in all of the four categories I devised- including the Art of Communicating Big Ideas (through speaking, writing, and drawing), the Art of Making Things Happen (through the tools of entrepreneurship and design), the Art of Hosting (including group facilitation, mentoring, and coaching), and the Art of Being.  Maybe not surprisingly, I actually encountered some of my biggest failures and learned some of my most important lessons in the fourth category… like learning how to carry (or not) the many ideas I seem capable of evoking in the world around me, and also how very important relationships and community are to my learning process and to self-directed learners in general (this is something that institutions make much easier).

In addition to hitting some of the smaller milestones I hoped to achieve in my plan (e.g. more paid facilitation work, more opportunities to speak, connecting more with the Art of Hosting community, learning some of the basics of graphic facilitation, etc.), I also totally surprised myself by actually hitting the biggest goal of my original plan, which was to find a way to work for an incubator, as both a vehicle for everything else I wanted to learn and also as validation that I was starting to master what I hoped to master.

And I did it!  In May, I will be starting a new chapter of my life by moving to Charlottesville, VA to become the Entrepreneur in Residence at HackCville– an incredible oasis of creativity supporting student startups and self-directed learners on the doorstep of UVA.  This will be a great learning edge for me and will provide a great platform for much of the learning I still want to do and for many of the projects I want to bring to life in the world.

One last big accomplishment I will note is that I have also found much greater clarity recently about the overarching goals for my Open Master’s plan and have been able to articulate a guiding theme, which is:

Inviting learners to take responsibility for their own learning and creating tools and communities to help support self-directed learners, with a focus on documenting the importance of relationships and community to self-directed learning.

From here, my main goals will be:

  • Incorporating many of the lessons I have learned from my travels, especially from the Open Master’s Program Netherlands, into the Open Master’s Program in the US… most importantly getting a more steady rhythm of meeting times and space going again.
  • Creating a process for me and some of my peers to complete an Open Master’s capstone project and share our results at a public event with friends and family by December, 2013.
  • Focusing on my own capstone project, which will be to create the Open Master’s in a Box, e.g. the second, more interactive iteration of the Open Master’s Handbook that can help new individuals and groups get started with their own Open Master’s Program.  My goal is to take that first version of the handbook and update it to reflect what we’ve learned so far, and also make it a little bit more flexible / less linear and more multi-modal in format (physical, web, video, etc.).
  • Apprenticing more with great facilitators and teachers while designing and running more of my own programs, courses, workshops, etc. for self-directed learners and social entrepreneurs.
  • Investing more and giving back to the many relationships and communities that have made my learning journey and personal growth possible over the years… and having some serious fun this summer!

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