15 October 2011

Learner-Owned: Digital Civilization

Calla Lily Unfolding What is self-directed learning?

I enrolled in Dr. Burton and Dr. Zappala's Digital Civilization course because I knew the course work was self-directed. It means that you get to shape your education to your own interests, major, and goals. I enrolled in the class as part of my preparation for my field study to a Tibetan community in India, intending to read and blog about Tibetans as I learned history and technology in the class. My first post, Tibetans and More, connected the ideas of Thomas More's Utopia with the exiled Tibetans' relationship to their homeland, and my addendum mused about the Utopian ideas of classroom technology--iClickers, Blackboard, and websites. Later on, I took a poll of a few classmates to discern their digital literacy and put together a working definition for my research.

For part of our course requirements, we were supposed to become familiar with new technologies and try using them. I started using Skype and ended up chatting, just through text, with Norbu Jinpa, an administrator in the school where I was hoping to conduct my honors thesis research, and with an exiled Tibetan blogger. I posted these conversations on my blog where they generated more conversations with classmates and other peers.

One of the most useful posts was my research grant application draft. I simply posted the entire text online and asked for feedback from anyone and everyone. Several people responded with thoughtful suggestions, including one woman whom I'd never met, and I ended up with a good proposal that received funding.


Self-directed learning is all about making education applicable to your own life. In one post I wrote, entitled Common Sense, I discussed the concept of modernism along with Einstein's theory of relativity, which I'd found interesting in my physical science class, and finally tied those ideas to digital culture and Tibetans in India. Sometimes I could not think of a way to connect the ideas, but I usually found some interesting relationship that helped me further understand Tibetans and prepare for three months of interaction with them.

The structure of our final exam, which was actually a project, was a beautiful example of self-directed learning. We began by proposing ideas for projects, things that reflected our own interests and the things we had learned in the course. I proposed an exploration of exiled Tibetan digital literacy, since that was related to the course material and to my honors thesis research plans. A few of my classmates were kind enough to join me, and we became the Digital Literacy Without Borders group. In the end, we interviewed Norbu over Skype and created a five-minute video of our interview highlights to show at our Digital Revolution final event.

About four months after this class was over, I departed the U.S. for McLeod Ganj, India, where I lived with a Tibetan family for three months. I conducted my honors thesis research, studying Tibetan digital literacy and the impact of internet on Tibetan culture, at the TCV where I'd originally hoped to go. I was so prepared for my field research by that point that I entered the school on the second day, acquired the letter that gave me permission to conduct research on the premises, and dove right in to translating my consent forms. I met Norbu, my Skype friend, and added many more Tibetans to my Facebook friends list. I lived some of the most memorable moments of my life in McLeod Ganj and returned to Utah with more than eight classes of completed surveys and ten interviews--I had a new appreciation for diversity, be it religious, socioeconomic, or racial. I met some of the most wonderful people I have ever known, and I became more like the person I've always wanted to be.

I think this paragraph from my final Digital Civilization post sums up self-directed learning quite well:
India will be a hugely significant part of my education.  Not only will it consume two years of my life (what with preparation, field research, and writing and defending my honors thesis) but I can feel it changing my education right now.  Instead of trying to find some book someone wrote twenty years ago about Tibetans, I have access to real time information from a real life Tibetan in India.  My research is suddenly relevant to the world right now and to my own varied interests (I like lots of things-- sciencepsychologytechnologycool bookslearning new ideasFrenchreligionschool in generalliteratureHarolddigital literacyintegrating secular and spiritual knowledgemy familyteachingdigital toolsmy pastfriendshistorycool peoplecool people who think I'm coolhelping people, etc.)  I feel like my education is coming full circle (not to mention my life!)  Suddenly, things that I like can be part of my schoolwork (for example, I LOVE that I can have music on my blog! Check out my new widget on the right had sidebar at the bottom!) 
Ah, life.
And that is the value of a self-directed, learner-owned education. You can make your life into whatever you want it to be.

Photo credit Bill Gracey

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