Guest Post from Robin DeRosa, PhD

Open Pedagogy and Adult Learning: Faculty Collaborating to Strengthen Public Higher Education

On August 2nd, I was honored to be the keynote speaker at the inaugural Summer Academy for Adult Learning and Teaching for Faculty, an event for instructors in the University of Maine system. When I was invited to speak to this cohort, I was especially excited because opportunities for faculty to work together on instruction-oriented initiatives across multiple campuses in a state higher education system are scarce. Faculty in Maine are partnering together to explore how pedagogy can be refigured to improve learning for adults in the state. Though Maine has a high completion rate for high school students (93%), the percentage of adults in Maine who have completed college hovers only around 30%; faculty should be centrally involved in conversations about how the state can better meet the need of adult learners. Public regional universities in any given state are often pitted against each other in competition for scarce legislator-allocated resources, but treating our sister institutions as competitor colleges erodes our ability to think of statewide higher education as a public imperative. Meeting with this group in Maine reminded me just how rare, refreshing, and radical it is during this period of “innovation” and “disruption” in higher education to have an initiative focused on statewide collaboration, student need, and teaching and learning.

In my keynote, I concentrated on the basic unmet needs that many students have that become barriers to college entry, persistence, and completion. Launching from a discussion of textbook costs, I mentioned food insecurity, transportation expenses, childcare costs, and lost opportunity costs. I raised the idea that these needs– so crucial for adult learners in particular– must be addressed in order for faculty to be able to start “teaching” in the traditional sense of delivering disciplinary content. As an extension of placing “access” at the core of our course designs and pedagogical approaches, I moved to talk about “Open Pedagogy,” or teaching and learning that is focused on access to knowledge and to knowledge creation. How can we get more learners to the table, and then how can we make sure that all learners have the ability to shape the world of which they are a part? By exploring openly-licensed textbooks, ePorts and student online domains, and nondisposable assignments, I offered ideas about how we can empower our students– particularly adults who have vast experience and diverse perspectives to offer to our fields– to contribute to, not just consume, knowledge.

My hope is that faculty members at public colleges and universities will work together across their own state systems to build a vocabulary to articulate the value of public higher education. As faculty, we can do this work by:

  • augmenting students’ access to higher education and empowering them to contribute to the knowledge commons;
  • enabling students to connect with their scholarly and professional communities of practice in transdisciplinary relationships across and outside of academic departments;
  • articulating the links between university programs and both social goods (lower prison rates for regions with higher college completion rates, for example) and private nonmarket goods (longer lives for college graduates, for example) to help generate a broader national conversation about the value of public higher education.

If we focus on instruction and on student and public need, we will begin to carve a path to a healthy and sustainable future for our state colleges and universities. I want to thank the University of Maine System, particularly the faculty and staff at the University of Southern Maine who hosted the event and invited me to their beautiful Portland campus, for their willingness to place service, access, and pedagogy at the core of their new system collaboration. I look forward to watching the good work that emerges out of this group!

For more information about my keynote address, “Higher Ed, Lower Ed, Open Ed: Pitfalls and Potential in Adult Learning,” you can click on the slide deck below. You can also reach out to faculty across each of the University of Maine campuses to hear their ideas about how we can work together as public scholars and educators to meet the needs of our adult learners.

Robin DeRosa is a professor at Plymouth State University, part of the University System of New Hampshire, where she directs a lively Interdisciplinary Studies program in which students customize their own majors, combining coursework from across all of the academic departments in the institution. She has developed an innovative curriculum for the program that combines connected learning techniques with open pedagogical practices, and her students learn in and contribute back to the public communities that inform and benefit from their work.  Robin works with faculty, librarians, and technologists from a wide variety of colleges and universities to help them explore ways to empower learners and increase public access to education and research. She partners with non-profit EdTech start-ups (such as Rebus and to support new tools for open teaching and learning, and she serves as an editor at the open-access journal, Hybrid Pedagogy. You can read more about Robin at her website, or follow her on Twitter @actualham.

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