David Preston: Open Source Learning Combines Academic Standards with 21st Century Workplace Skills

Innovative teaching method empowers students to "brand" themselves and their work, learn to collaborate effectively.

After teaching at UCLA for ten years and operating his own management consulting firm, David Preston (’97, Ph.D., Education Policy) reached a point in his career when he recognized that the disconnect between faltering educational systems and thriving online technology could turn a national problem into new opportunities for student achievement.

“Current curriculum and teaching, even when delivered through the tools and media of the Information Age, don’t fully engage today’s students or prepare them with the skills they need to prosper,” Preston says. “Education cannot be improved just by integrating new technology into the educational system; the real challenge is how to use the power of online communication and other tools to motivate students to engage with learning.”

Preston shared some of his thoughts with a friend who was principal of Monroe High School in the San Fernando Valley, then the fourth largest high school in the nation.  His friend countered by offering him a job teaching in the English department.

As Preston considered the teaching offer, he realized that returning to high school teaching was an opportunity to build new connections between education and the tools of online communication. Thus in 2004, he switched from the university environment to teaching high school.

“There is great diversity in learning,” says Preston, “and I wanted to see if what I was doing could be equally valuable for students in all communities and walks of life.”

In addition to teaching traditional courses for grades 9-12 ranging from Writing Interventions to Advanced Placement courses in literature, Preston capitalized on students’ skills as digital natives to create new learning techniques that he named “Open Source Learning.”  As a result, he has built an emerging teaching philosophy that is gaining traction on a national level as a powerful new method to merge the power and resources of the Internet with traditional academic studies.

Through Open Source Learning, Preston developed methods that allow students to create their own learning experiences as a virtual complement to the classroom studies.  Students work with teacher-mentors to communicate and collaborate, using in-depth online research, blogs, social media, and other interactive tools.

“Students have access to the Internet in their pockets, but most teaching environments don’t even begin to touch the power of online technology,” Preston says.  “At first I started using these tools because I thought that it made the curriculum more engaging.  But as Open Source Learning evolved, I realized that these tools – and the networks they can create – give students many more choices for expressing themselves in the context of the curriculum and finding depth in the material.”

Using free blogging software and other social media, Preston shows learners how to initiate interdisciplinary paths of inquiry by asking “Big Questions” which they create themselves.  As students pursue answers using the course curriculum, he helps them learn about the Internet and establish their digital identities and learning communities beyond their campus.

By introducing students to authors and experts, Preston shifts from authority to guide.  He also uses the blog platform to provide links to class materials in multiple media; evaluation rubrics; and information about peer-to-peer assessment, information on college and scholarships, and the opportunity for his students to create their own blogs.  As a result, their work is not only a medium for assignments but also becomes part of their own personal portfolios to use for college admissions and beyond.

As a result of Open Source Learning methods, student academic achievement improves dramatically and includes a portfolio of authentic work that’s available online. The blog format allows Preston to use a more straightforward approach to teaching classic and often, dense material such as Shakespeare and poetry by Edgar Allan Poe to high school students. Through students’ posts, he can assess how well they are grasping the class material. Students are encouraged to use video and mind maps to convey their thoughts and to “brand” their blogs as they wish.

“This is a pivotal moment for education,” Preston says. “Students are generating data we’ve never seen before, and the quality and quantity tells a rich story.   Through Open Source Learning, we not only get a sense of what students are thinking about related to the curriculum, but you also get a sense of who they are through their aesthetic and media choices.”

College professors and future employers expect students to possess skills and proficiency in using the digital, physical, and rhetorical tools of the Information Age.  Preston recognized that traditional K-12 education typically does not provide these tools, nor does it provide much in the way of interdisciplinary programs.

“The culture of K-12 education is completely siloed,” he says.  “We have subject-by-subject instruction, and then students go into college and careers where they’re expected to blend it.  In K-12 students aren’t allowed to question, and then employers wonder why they can’t find critical thinkers. Open Source Learning is geared toward the learner’s upcoming experiences in college and in the workplace.”

Preston says that Open Source Learning does not seek to replace skills such as writing a traditional academic paper, but to capitalize on technology to better serve all students, using the same core curriculum of any traditional academic discipline.  However, according to Preston, “Open Source Learning sustains and amplifies academic rigor because everyone’s work product is public.

“When it comes to college readiness, we have a massive gap between the preparation K-12 does and the expectations that professors have of freshmen coming to college,” he says. “More and more colleges are adopting technology, not just to augment lectures but to blend learning and replace traditional instructional methods. Students leave my courses knowing how to write papers, but from that place, they achieve creativity that is not available to them in most other classes.”

Preston says that the Open Source Learning environment has transformed teaching from an authority-centric broadcast into a network where as a teacher he is, “just one node among many. This changes the learning culture; students know that they have the authority to challenge standard practice.

“A student can say, ‘I can put my work in a paper with traditional formats and citations, or I have a series of rich resources that I can use to create a video or mind map, or collaborate with peers who I’ve never met.’ Sometimes this makes them think about something,1 an approach they haven’t considered yet, and those moments are the sparks of innovation.”

In 2011, Preston introduced Open Source Learning at the Institute for the Future, a Palo Alto think tank that named his idea as a winner of its “California Dreams” contest.  Howard Rheingold, an authority on digital culture who teaches at UC Berkeley and Stanford and coined the phrase Virtual Community in his 1993 book, was in the audience that night.

After an online meeting with Open Source Learners, Rheingold wrote, “At a time when so many teachers and administrators fear and forbid student access to the Internet from school, a high school teacher on the California coast is encouraging students by the hundreds to blog, Skype, gamify, and mindmap collaboratively in public. Problems? Zero. Enthusiasm — I can personally testify as one of the people Dr. Preston invited to videoconference with his students — blows the roof off.

“Preston’s students are enthusiastic about the texts, the ideas, the possibility of reaching out to the authors of those texts and inviting them into the class, and the power and responsibility of co-designing their own learning,” Rheingold said.

Jane Kagon, founder and executive director of RFK-LA, a non-profit educational organization dedicated to fostering a more just society by training young people to use new media for social action sees Open Source Learning as a way for learners to collaborate and level the playing field.

“Open Source Learning, by its very definition, is an intrinsic structural component of a learner-driven social justice curriculum,“ Kagon said.

And how do students feel about Open Source Learning?  Evaluations are almost universally positive, with students overwhelmingly excited about the work they completed and the potential for Open Source Learning as beneficial for others.

Taking this teamwork further, Preston encourages his students to form collaborative working groups to develop ideas for business startups or nonprofit organizations.  The process helps students further develop their own interests outside of the classroom. Recent graduates have created peer-to-peer training for Open Source Learning; a program to help high school-aged mothers network and help each other to understand the value of technology for child care and financial stability; and a way for high school artists to sell their work.

Collaboration through Open Source Learning also helps students build abilities that are traditionally – and actively – discouraged in most classrooms.

“In general, teacher education programs still emphasize ‘classroom management’ and how to keep people from cheating,” Preston says. “And cheating in school means talking to each other. Then we get into working environments and what are we told?  ‘You need to work on your team-building skills.’

“I’ve seen students run into each other before class and say, ‘You know, I saw that you were having a problem with that on the blog – how can I help?’ So I’m finding that through their experience online, they’re actually developing skills and ethics that we used to teach offline, like civic participation and conflict management. I see students adopting habits of mind and habits of personality that are much more likely to make them successful.”

Collaboration beyond the classroom creates opportunities to build relationships and communities.  Students who formed a Peace Club began a microfinance program and eventually partnered with YOFAFO, a Ugandan NGO that empowers women and children through education.  And an unexpected global network of Preston’s former students now volunteer as online teacher’s aides from around the world, grading blogs and providing feedback and support to current students.

After initiating his work on Open Source Learning at Monroe, two years later Preston moved to Righetti High School in Santa Maria, Calif., where his methods have been gaining broad attention as compelling methods for increasing student engagement and achievement.

Locally, Preston’s school district is embracing Open Source Learning in other courses, and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo has taken the first steps to engage with Open Source Learning, both as a teaching method and as a platform for investigating new opportunities in education.  Nationally, Preston is establishing broader connections to create a place for Open Source Learning as a widely accepted tool.

“I see Open Source Learning as the foundation of a learning experience that students can use to prepare for the unprecedented challenges of an interconnected global economy and workplace,” Preston says. “Students face an increasingly uncertain economic future and we don’t know where new jobs are coming from, so conventional preparation for college or the job market aren’t enough.

“Open Source Learning is a pathway that gives students tools they need to meet traditional academic challenges and strategies for success in a society that has adopted rapidly changing and powerful online communication tools,” he notes. “Throughout the process they become more confident and positive, and they become much more able to express themselves through their blogs and the other tools that we use. As a result, students become secure, confident digital citizens; more mindful, purposeful people; more effective scholars; and more competitive candidates for all sorts of opportunities.”

For a webinar on Open Source Learning, click here.

For Preston’s TEDx talk at UCLA, click here.


Above: GSE&IS alumnus David Preston spoke on Open Source Learning at the TEDxUCLA event last year.