From Open Access to Open Learning
This article first appeared in the 2012 Spring edition of OnCUE Journal.
In the 1960s my dad packed all of his possessions into his car and drove 3,000 miles in search of his dream.  He grew up in New Jersey, the second youngest of fifteen first-generation American children in a poverty-stricken family, and the first to graduate high school.  At the time, he was enrolled in a local college but needed to keep his day job as a mechanic to afford the tuition for his night classes.After falling asleep under a car one day, he knew something had to give.
One day, a friend told him about magical institutions in California that were giving away college education—for free.  They were called community colleges.  That was the catalyst that inspired my dad to pack up his belongings and leave his friends and family in search of his dream, a college education, in the Golden State.
He enrolled at Porterville Community College and received his Associate’s degree.  Then he transferred to San Jose State where he received his Bachelor’s and his Master’s degrees, and then went on to complete his Ph.D. in chemistry outside of California.  At age seventy-two, he is now retired from a long successful career as a research scientist and, to this day, credits his professional success to the open access of community colleges.  In fact, it still means so much to him that just a few years ago he and two friends whom he met in Porterville returned to the campus to experience the place that supported each of them in their unique lifelong journeys.  Of course, nobody knew the white-haired men, and the campus looked very different, but the feeling of empowerment and pride that filled them as they walked across campus was much the same as their first day of college some forty plus years ago.
As a community college instructor, I have thought a lot about my father’s journey and it has helped me be a better teacher for my students.  My dad’s story, for me, represents why low cost higher education is critical to the future success of California, as well as our nation. And, despite the tragic budget situation pervading the state of California and the wave of tuition increases, California’s 112 community colleges remain the most affordable avenue to higher education in the country—and serve roughly 2.6 million students each year, more than any other system in the nation.
But while “open access” has always been foundational to the community college mission, I believe it’s time “open learning” becomes a priority as well. Yes, my dad learned in college.  He learned a lot.But his success was largely tied to his love and passion for reading. When he was young, he would climb into dumpsters to seek out discarded books and then read them at night under his covers with a flashlight to avoid getting in trouble.  To this day, my father is never without a book in his hand.  The shelves in his home are overflowing with books about quantum theory, computing algorithms, nuclear magnetism, molecular dynamics, and organic compounds. My dad’s college success is largely attributed to the fact that his strengths as a learner aligned with the way his college classes were taught.
But when colleges accept the top 100% of students, that means we are accepting all types of learners. People learn in a variety of ways.  Many struggle in an environment of text and lectures, but this doesn’t mean they are incapable of learning.  In college, these “non-traditional” learners are often doubly challenged by low self-esteem.  Prior to arriving on campus, they have been labeled “slow,” “poor readers,” “special”—words that translate to mean one thing to a student, “I’m stupid.”  And,sadly, that’s precisely what many community college students believe.
I think things are starting to shift.  Recently, I’ve noticed some intriguing online dialogue shared by users of theKhan Academy videos—which include more than 2,000 free, online videos on a variety of topics from math to art history.  Many of the messages I’ve read were written by students like “Kenneth” (whose name I have changed at his request).  Kenneth is a 49-year old community college student.  He attends his classes regularly but struggles to comprehend his course content, which is comprised of textbook chapters and live classroom lectures.  To assist him, he views free, online videos that are shared openly by the Khan Academy (
Kenneth seeks out the videos and views those that supplement the topics covered in his classes. The videos give him the power to pause, rewind, and replay the content. Each video is brief, communicates ideas clearly, is illustrated with visuals, and uses accessible language. The videos enable Kenneth to manage the flow of his instruction so it progresses in tune with his learning.
But the Khan Academy videos have done much more than help Kenneth do well in class.  They have also empowered Kenneth to understand that he is capable of learning.  Despite what his educational experiences continue to teach him, he is not a failure.  He can and he will achieve the same objectives as his peers, he just needs to take a different path to get there.  And this is precisely why this moment is revolutionary.
For the first time since the beginning of standardized education, students who are marginalized because they don’t fit our socially privileged version of learning are lifting the veil and realizing they aren’t the problem.  Here is an excerpt from an email Kenneth wrote to the Khan Academy (shared herewith his permission):
I knew that I had a learning problem when I was in high school an dwas given a bunch of tests…and [was] told that I had a learning disability…I have gone to psychologists all my life because…I have always felt like I am an underachiever, due to the fact that whenI always went to class, the STYLE of teaching was not interactive…
Everybody operates at a different pace, and this economy will be most successful when most of us can operate at the pace that best suits us,as we all do things AT A DIFFERENT RHYTHM. WE LEARN AT A DIFFERENT RHYTHM AND THINK AT A DIFFERENT RHYTHM.
Human brains are complex and diverse—and always have been.  Some brains comprehend information conveyed through text and live lectures exceptionally well.  Those that do excel in college.  Those that don’t are deemed“unprepared” for college learning.  What if we changed that paradigm?
Mobile devices, social media,Web 2.0, and open licenses are transforming learning, perhaps in more ways than we can comprehend. They are teaching students and lifelong learners, like Kenneth, how to learn. And teachers and college professors should be doing the same.
As 21st Century educators, we have an amazing opportunity in front of us to innovate our instructional approaches and change the lives of students—more than ever before.Opening our learning environments involves experimenting with emerging technologies to explore new learning methods—like the flipped classroom—and create asynchronous,multi-sensory learning environments that can be accessed from anywhere at any time.
Like gourmet cooking, 21st Century teaching involves creativity, curiosity, and experimentation.  Teaching with emerging technologies is an opportunity to create rich, participatory environments that flatten the learning landscape for all learners to share, analyze, demonstrate, and discuss with images, video, voice, and text. Open learning engages all learners in a community that transcends classroom walls,campus borders, and beyond.
Open access unlocks the door.  Open learning inspires the journey.

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