Liberated Learners is a guide to prepare post-secondary students for almost anything academic life can throw at them.
University life can be difficult to navigate at the best of times. The stress of deadlines, heavy workloads, interpersonal conflicts, and shaky finances can feel overwhelming, especially when you don’t even have time to figure out a solution to your anxiety. So many students turn inward, blaming themselves for their perceived shortcomings, not realizing that many of their classmates feel the same way or that some simple strategies can make a big difference.
While student guidebooks can sometimes provide insight, few are as comprehensive as this one. Liberated Learners is a large, interinstitutional project, co-designed by students, faculty, and staff at Trent University, Brock University, Seneca College, University of Windsor, McMaster University, Cambrian College, and Nipissing University. This collaboration resulted in a project that is more than the sum of its parts: Students in the Seneca College Independent Music programs supply original music (“beats to study to”) for anyone looking to study without distraction. Other students reflect on the “wicked problems” they faced in academia and how they overcame them. The layout, structure, and overall design of the book show that a great deal of care and thought went into the planning of this project. Despite its many authors, the book always feels like one cohesive work.
Liberated Learners covers everything from video production and personal finance to sleeping habits and imposter syndrome. The book is split into four modules: The Learner (about study habits and motivation), The Technologist (about understanding the necessary tech tools), The Navigator (about time management, wellness, and navigating your program/institution), and The Collaborator (about working with others, allyship, self-advocacy, and networking). Each module provides helpful information, activities to complete, “wicked problems,” and “beats to study to.”
The book isn’t just wide-ranging, it’s also mercifully succinct, boiling much of its advice down into bite-sized bits. When I was a student, I was usually too busy to get the help I needed. Something like Liberated Learners would have provided reassurance and steered me towards the appropriate resources. Students can dive in or just take the bits and pieces that they need. It’s perfect for those who need help fast but don’t know where to start.
Here to talk about it are Terry Greene, project lead, and Dana Jamaleddine, student co-collaborator.
Could you each tell me a bit about your background and your role in the project?
Terry: I am Terry Greene, Senior eLearning Designer at Trent University. From 2017 to 2019 I was a Program Manager at eCampusOntario, where I worked on the Ontario Extend: Empowered Educator program. It was then that Lena Patterson (the Senior Director at the time) suggested we should do the same kind of thing for learners. Cut to late 2020, and eCampusOntario puts out a funding call for the creation of Virtual Learning Strategy projects, and I saw that as the opportunity to bring Lena’s idea to life. From there I got the team of collaborators together and acted as project lead.
Dana: I’m currently in my second year of the Bachelor of Education program at Trent University, graduating at the end of April. Prior to this program, I was completing my Master’s of Education at the University of Ottawa, and a few years before that, I completed a major in Political Science at Concordia University.
My role in the project was a little all over the place. In the beginning, Asa (another student co-designer) and I worked with Terry to plan the [Wicked Problems] Design Sprint event. We hosted a number of post-secondary students, filled them in on our project, and asked them to (voluntarily) share any obstacles they experienced interfering with the success in their program, a.k.a. “wicked problems.” Asa and I were then tasked with reading through all the student submissions and categorizing them. Once that part was done, our focus turned to the Collaborator module, where we used the “wicked” stories to help identify what the needs and sequence of this module should be, and we came up with relevant activities for students to engage with. Finally, the collaborator team (Liam, Sevda, Joanne, and I) wrote up the content for the entire module.
This was a large project with a lot of contributors and collaborators. What were students’ motivations for getting involved? Was it extra-curricular or part of a course?
Terry: From the get-go, in writing the proposal and creating the budget, a goal was to get as much of the funding to go to student participation and co-design as possible. So, really, money was likely the initial motivator for student involvement. We paid honoraria to all students who participated in the Wicked Problems Design Sprint, we had student co-designers on contract at all of the institutions as well as graphic designers and French translators. We also paid honoraria to the Independent Music Production students who crafted the “beats to study to.” I like to think that, while money is of course an important motivator, once students were able to see what we were trying to make together, there were also some warm and fuzzy, heartfelt motivators as well.
This is a comprehensive book. It covers just about everything that I could think of for a university student—right down to podcasting tips and navigating group projects. It was also designed with great care, from the headings and layout to the videos and interactive content. It must have been a big undertaking just dividing the work and keeping everything organized, especially across multiple institutions. Can you tell me about how this project was managed and what it was like for the people involved?
Terry: There were seven institutions collaborating. We set up teams mostly in pairs to each take on the development of one of the modules. Brock University and Seneca College took on the Technologist Module, Trent and McMaster Universities the Collaborator, Nipissing University and Cambrian College the Navigator. Dave Cormier at the University of Windsor had a small army of co-op student workers ready for us, so they were able to take on the Learner Module solo. The larger team all met weekly (sometimes biweekly) to keep each other up to date, but each of these side teams had their own independent production unit going on. As project lead, I tried to be the connective tissue that kept things together and took on special side projects like the music, the Wicked Problems site, and the development of the Pressbook front and back matter (with lots of help from others!).
Dana: Terry did a great job at keeping us all connected and on track, all the while giving each of us the space we needed to create our own vision and add our contributions. Additionally, the Wicked Problems we collected from students were such a key component. They informed everything that was included within the Pressbook.
Terry, you’ve been an active part of an online community that cares about open pedagogy and making students part of the teaching process. Has that influenced the design or content of the book? How so?
Terry: Being a part of a community that cares about open pedagogy means not only being able to experience seeing how others value student co-design but also seeing how to do it successfully—by watching the Robin DeRosas of the world do it so well, for example (see The Open Anthology of Earlier American Literature). It also means knowing that someone like Alan Levine is out there whipping up things like SPLOTS that I (a total hack) can easily make use of to openly collect things like our Wicked Problems stories that then went on to inform the content of the modules. Being part of that open community also means having people in your PLN [personal learning network] that you know will share the vision and are willing to let students truly participate. We wouldn’t have produced what we produced without a bevy of open educators helping to set the stage and having the grace to let the student co-designers take to that stage.
Liberated Learners guides students through many concrete, specific tasks, like basic graphic design, but it also provides tips that are more universal, such as how to approach learning new technologies more generally. That scope makes this a useful book for all kinds of students in all kinds of situations. What sort of research went into determining what students’ needs are?
Terry: We of course did some environmental scans of what’s out there and did an analysis of the task at hand, but the main approach we took was to run a design sprint in which we gathered students together to tell the stories of the “wicked problems” that they have faced in their “learny journeys.” And I think one of the key indicators that we truly leaned into student co-design is that the Wicked Problem idea itself, to listen to the real stories and to use those to inform the content of the modules, was pitched by the University of Windsor co-op students in the first place. Even further, that design sprint wouldn’t have been as successful at drawing out as many authentic stories if we (we being the non-student members of the team) didn’t get out of the way there and let our students run the design sprint sessions. They were brilliantly facilitated by Dana and Asa at Trent, Krisha Amin from Seneca and Rana Kilani from Windsor. Ultimately, all the content and activities you find in the actual Liberated Learners Pressbook, can be traced back to a story told at the [Wicked Problems] Design Sprint (and shared at the Wicked Problems site).
Dana, I know you worked on the “collaborator module” as well as some other parts of the book. What was it like for you as a co-designer? How do you feel about your work living on in the form of this book?
Dana: In the beginning, it was slightly nerve-wracking because you’re working with all these experienced professionals on an idea that was still quite abstract at the time. However, I was really excited to be part of a learning design project, and all the team members were incredibly approachable and did a great job at supporting us (the student co-designers) along the way. Ultimately, it was really great to take part in such a big collaborative project and I learned a lot. Knowing that this work is now living on the internet is quite surreal, but I feel good about the final product. I really hope students will find it relevant and useful for their own purposes.
Terry, you previously helped implement Ontario Extend: Empowered Educators, a similarly comprehensive and accessible guide for educators. What did you learn during that process that you were able to bring to Liberated Learners? Has your approach changed?
Terry: What we tried to emulate from the original is that the content and activities have heart and authenticity at their core. It’s a thing meant to help you be an educator in a digital realm, yet it’s not tech first at all. It’s heart first. Human first. We aimed to take that and run with it for Liberated Learners, hopefully resulting in content and activities with a heart that is authentic to its audience. The original came to that result by having designers with care at their core like Joanne Kehoe, Peg French, Michel Singh, Giulia Forsythe, and David Porter. Liberated Learners got [its heart] by putting student co-designers in the same position. I have already mentioned a few of them, but just have a look at our “end credits” scene here to see how many great student co-designers we had.
There are a lot of people thinking about making their own collaborative OER projects, but they might feel daunted by the scope or logistics of it all. Do you have any suggestions for anyone trying to organize a large project like this?
Terry: You can very likely reach out to anyone on this project, or anyone on a project you admire, and seek specific advice. But first and foremost, please just go for it. Not to toot our horns here, but I think that this project proves once again, that you can do some pretty awesome stuff when you invite people to collaborate.
Is there anything else you’d like to tell people about Liberated Learners?
Terry: We have heard some great feedback from our educator peers in the open education world, which is absolutely fabulous. But what would be absolutely more fabulous would be if we could have some help getting this resource in front of students. We have intentions to use the “beats to study to” music to anchor a one-hour audio program that highlights the project and hopefully have it broadcast at places like campus radio stations. We are looking forward to seeing if we can help students crack things open for themselves and find some more joy in their learning.
Dana: When I think back to my own undergraduate experience, I was too proud and likely too embarrassed to talk about the difficulties I was facing. Instead, I internalized the challenges I was experiencing and took them to mean the problem resided with me. I waited until near the end of my program before I started opening up about said struggles, only to find out so many others had the same (or similar) experiences. I want students to know they are not alone in their “wicked problems.” I want them to use Liberated Learners, find out that others have the same experiences, and see if any of these strategies could work for them.
Find more OER projects that relied on student contributions in the Student-Led OER collection.