In response to Amy Kinsel

Two weeks ago, Washington state representative Reuven Carlyle wrote a blog post about his vision for open education in the state of Washington, in which he referred at length to my recent Educause article, Openness as Catalyst for an Educational Reformation.

A thoughtful constituent of Carlyle’s, Professor Amy Kinsel, professor of History at Shoreline Community College, took the time to pen a thoughtful, critical response to his post and my ideas specifically. I’d like to respond to several of her points here.

As you note, access to information is powerful, and government-supported institutions should not be in the business of restricting access to information. However, equal and open access to information is only a part of what is necessary to provide educational opportunity for everyone. You write, “We need to educate more people to higher levels.” But will educating more people to higher levels happen simply through opening the spigot of information and letting it flow?…. As an experienced educator, I know first-hand that education does not consist primarily of the transfer of information from books or professors to students. Access to information alone does not equal education…. Merely knowing ideas and information is not enough.

I wholly, completely agree with this statement. Access to a wealth of content, information, books, articles, and other resources is a necessary – but not sufficient – condition for learning. What we must not overlook in this statement is that access to content is a necessary condition for learning. While it would be inappropriate to suggest that access to content alone is sufficient, it would be equally irresponsible to overlook the critical role content plays in supporting learning.

Yesterday’s Chronicle included a story about Mirta Martin, dean of the Virginia State University business school:

Last year Ms. Martin became so frustrated from hearing stories about students who were performing poorly because they could not afford textbooks that she made a pledge that no needy student would go without a book…

The Chronicle story goes on to describe how Flat World Knowledge, a for-profit company that publishes openly licensed textbooks, has partnered with the VSU business school to insure that those students have access to all the content they need to succeed in their classes – including (of course) the option of free online access to all of FWK’s textbooks.

As I have said before, content is infrastructure – a critical piece of the teaching and learning puzzle we all need to be able to assume is freely available to everyone at very high quality. Once this kind of ubiquitous, high quality learning infrastructure exists,
student success will increase (as per Ms. Martin’s story), and the rate of innovation and experimentation in education will increase. Increasing the rate of innovation by providing necessary infrastructure is the best way to help desperately-needed breakthroughs in education to happen more quickly.

Wiley doesn’t like proprietary textbooks and advocates for open-source textbooks, presumably because of cost rather than an aversion to textbooks. For any introductory college course that presents a great deal of material that is new to students, assigning a pedagogically-sound textbook is essential to student success. This is especially true in an online course where reading is the primary method for conveying this material to students.

Yes, one problem I have with textbooks is their ridiculously absurd cost. In the Chronicle story I referenced above, Ms. Martin is quoted as saying “For our accounting books senior year, there’s nothing under $250.” The unjustifiably high cost of textbooks turns into access problems for students, which means they can’t complete assigned readings, etc. This is a serious problem.

But there are other problems with textbooks. For example, in many instances a textbook is out of date (that is, important new information has become available in the field which is not included in the textbook) before the book is even printed – yet alone used by students. Or consider the way that, once you’ve finally got your course planned and working, the publisher cancels the edition of the text you use and issues a new one (with no substantive changes) that still somehow requires you to spend a significant amount of time replanning your course…

But more importantly to me, as a scholar and educator, the copyrighted nature of a typical textbook prevents me from using it in all the ways I want to. For example, if I only need one chapter out of a book, can I (legally) make 100 copies of that section and hand it out to students? No. Can I (legally) directly change outdated parts of the text? No. Can I (legally) add my own material or other openly licensed material directly into the text? No. Over the years faculty have found workarounds for all of these issues (e.g., ignoring the law and photocopying anyway, assembling course readers at great expense in copyright clearance time and to student pocketbooks, etc.), but these are all workarounds. Yes, we’re used to them now, but when you step back and examine the issue critically there is no good reason we should have to work-around the content we teach with. Adopting openly licensed textbooks and other materials eliminates these and many other problems.

Like most educators, if I could find a good well-written open-source textbook, I would assign it. Yet high-quality open-source textbooks don’t exist in many disciplines, particularly in politically-contentious fields like History. Until pedagogically-sound open-source texts are available in our disciplines, faculty like me will continue to assign commercially-published textbooks.

This is, of course, an entirely legitimate concern. This is why initiatives like Washington’s Open Course Library are so desperately needed. Hopefully when the Open Course Library opens its doors next year, a much larger number of professors will have a top-notch alternative set of materials that are available for their students at no cost, that they can customize specifically for their needs, etc.

This year, if students who register for a U.S. History survey course at Shoreline buy used textbooks and sell them back to the bookstore, they will have an effective cost for a commercial text with full-color illustrations and maps and online study aids of $27.26. Because this textbook covers the entire three-quarter U.S. History survey curriculum, students who enroll in all three U.S. History courses, buy a used textbook, and sell it back to the bookstore will have an effective textbook cost of $9.09 per quarter. With a cost-effective commercial textbook option like this, I don’t need to ask my students to use a second- or third-rate open-source text.

I don’t believe anyone would recommend assigning a second or third-rate book regardless of its licensing status or cost.

I think the kind of alignment of courses Amy describes, which reduces the costs of materials for students, is absolutely commendable. In fields where there is currently no legitimate openly-licensed alternative, this may be one of the best scenarios. But wouldn’t it be even better if, for the same cost (e.g., a printed version of an open textbook from FWK costs $30) a student could get a brand new textbook, that s/he could highlight and annotate according to his/her own study habits (without having to try to decipher the highlighting of previous owners), and that s/he could keep at the end of term?

Many absolutely first rate textbooks are already available from FWK and CK-12, complete with teacher’s editions, problem sets, and other supplemental materials. Some openly licensed courses and course materials are created through grant and governmental funding, like the Washington Open Course Library. Others are created by individual faculty as labors of love, like Preston McAfee’s first edition of Introduction to Economic Analysis. Of course these books don’t appear ex nihilo, created without effort or incentive. So if you really wish an open textbook existed for your class, you have two choices – sit back and wait for one or go find some funding and write your own!

Wiley doesn’t like commercial learning management systems (LMS) like Blackboard. It’s true that these are profit-making ventures and colleges pay fees to use them. If the cost of these systems is Wiley’s main concern, there are open-source alternatives available.

In today’s environment, cost is a real concern, although not the largest. And yes, open alternatives like Moodle and Sakai have existed for years now.

Yes, passwords in Blackboard restrict access to each classroom to students who are enrolled in the class, and student information and student postings are inaccessible to students after the end of the quarter. But why is this wrong? The online class disappears just like a face-to-face class ceases to exist when the instructor and the students no longer meet.

I think it’s a terrible shame that our face-to-face courses end after 15 weeks. Just when you’re finally learning everyone’s personalities and preferences, and students are starting to really master the material, it all ends. In a traditional, physically-bound classroom setting, this may be inescapable. But again, if we step back and critically reimagine teaching and learning in the context of modern technology, there is no a priori reason that courses must work in this manner.

What’s more, the “conceal-restrict-withhold-delete” process that Wiley criticizes is necessary and desirable for a number of good reasons that include student privacy rights and the responsibility of the instructor to create a safe learning environment for students. Frankly, I don’t see how a different approach would be consistent with federal law and with appropriate classroom pedagogy. Students may share their own personal information and classroom work as they see fit, but a college may not. Not only would doing so be illegal, it would not help students learn. In a “thriving community of learning,” students explore ideas, voice opinions, and try out arguments. All of these things are a bit scary and ought to be done in a classroom environment that feels safe to the students. Students need to feel confident and secure in their classrooms in order to risk stretching their minds by asking the “dumb” questions that show they are thinking or voicing the “weird” ideas that show they are learning. What sort of freedom of expression and thought would students engage in if they were worried that anyone in the blogosphere could see their names and read what they wrote forever? I’d have at least half or even more of the class opting out of posting online if they thought their posts would be open to the world.

Amy and I agree that no faculty member can legally post student work in public. And we agree that students need to feel safe in order for them to engage substantively in conversations and other activities. However, in several years of inviting my students to carry out discussions on the public internet and inviting them to post their assignments to the public internet (rather than submitting them to me privately), I’ve only ever had one student decline.

I explain to my students that discussions on the open internet can still be framed as formative, learning conversations and not as one’s final opinion. I tell stories about comments and perspectives that have been shared by people from other cultures and other countries (folks coming from the public internet outside our formal class participants) that have enriched previous class conversations. I tell stories about electronic newsletters linking to particularly thoughtful student essays, engaging an even more diverse group of people in the conversation and building students’ professional reputations. And I remind students that, at the end of the day, many of the jobs they will take will require them to frame and publicly present their ideas (often their ideas in progress!) in a thoughtful way that their peers can engage with. They need to learn how to disagree with someone respectfully (a skill sorely lacking in today’s society), and they need to learn how to take the harsh criticism that sometimes comes. And the principle of transparency improving quality comes into play, too – knowing the whole class is going to see their homework gets most students to turn it up a notch.

My observations (and students’ comments back to me) indicate that students’ experiences with engaging in content-related conversations publicly, sharing and refining their “best current thinking” while drawing on all the resources of the network (including the people in the network), are incredibly valuable for students. For legal reasons I always present this public path as an option to my students, but my experience has been that almost everyone takes it – and is glad they did.

Wiley conceives of online instruction as easily and cheaply expandable. This differs significantly from the reality of my online teaching experience. Wiley’s contention that online teaching can be easily scaled up “to satisfy rapidly increasing popular demand” for higher education would be plausible if education really did consist of transferring information from textbooks and faculty to students. But since an education worthy of the name consists of learning, not information transfer, I submit that Wiley is wrong to suggest that online instruction is a cheap solution to higher education’s capacity and funding shortfalls. Certainly, there are no physical barriers to adding as many students as possible to the online courses I teach. But as a practical matter, making a course open to all comers will mean there are far too many students in the online classroom for critical thinking skills to be developed. If I were responsible not for 25-30 students per online class but 60 or even 100 students, I would need to change how I teach.

I don’t believe I’ve ever suggested that scaling meaningful learning opportunities to large numbers of people will be easy or cheap. However, I do contend that it is absolutely possible if – as Amy indicates – we are willing to change the way we teach. “Blended” or “hybrid” models of instruction provide one example. Take the college professor who teaches three sections of a course. Rather than stand and deliver the same lecture three times a day, three times per week, these lectures can be pre-recorded for students to watch online before coming to class. The nine hours the professor previously spent giving the same lectures over again can now be dedicated to serving the individual needs of more students, answering their questions, etc. This one change results in a large increase in the number of students we can serve with our course offerings.

Other innovative uses of technology can enhance this effect. For example, take a scenario in which students submit their work online and some of this work can be automatically scored. Student performance and grades can be tracked and analyzed at the item / learning outcome level, and this information can be accessed by teachers through rudimentary data dashboards. Using these data teachers can make informed decisions about how to allocate their (new surplus) time interacting with and supporting students’ learning. Not every student will need help every week, and knowing who doesn’t need help this week frees up more time to help students who do need help this week.

This combination of online media and data-driven teaching is not pie-in-the-sky techno-dream, but a concrete strategy that can be implemented today. For example, the Open High School of Utah operates on these principles.

Online education is a useful tool for reaching out to students, but it requires adequate funding. In this necessary discussion of how to make good on the core value of providing access to educational opportunity for everyone, I would first carefully examine how Washington’s colleges and universities are funded and look for ways to stabilize this funding. The current system of ever-declining state support and ever-increasing tuition rates is not sustainable and is already failing to make educational opportunities available for all students. Until we tackle the funding problem, talk of reaching additional students through online instruction will not result in additional capacity, additional access, or additional opportunity. I’d love to teach a second online class this fall, but even a dedicated public servant like me can’t do it for free.

Funding models are an important topic to discuss, and the cost of curriculum materials should be an important part of those conversations. Open educational resources have much to add to the discussion of affordability, increased access, and improved success. Pedagogical models are also important to discuss. When we’re willing to change the way we teach, we can leverage technology and data thoughtfully to increase the number of students we are capable of serving appropriately.

Educause, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the League for Innovation in the Community Colleges, and other organizations are currently sponsoring a program called Next Generation Learning Challenges. Three of the first four areas they have identified for research are open educational resources, blended learning, and learning analytics – the three themes I have discussed above. The fourth is Web 2.0 engagement, and there are ample opportunities here to further engage and interact with students if we are willing to thoughtfully change the way we teach.

In summary, I believe that where high quality open educational resources are available we should be adopting them. Where none are available we should be supporting their creation. High quality content is critical infrastructure that education cannot succeed without. When this infrastructure is too expensive (as is currently the case), innovation is stifled. When this infrastructure is free and open, innovation will quickly multiply.

As Amy points out, information provision is not education. While we should work diligently to increase free and open access to the content infrastructure, we must never lose sight of our equal responsibility to innovate atop this new infrastructure. By definition, innovation necessitates a willingness to teach differently – thoughtfully leveraging the capabilities of the myriad social, analytic, and other technologies available to us. When we can honestly say that we are using all available tools to the best of our individual abilities, we can honestly say that we are fulfilling the sacred trust society and our individual students have placed in us as teachers.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Muvaffak Gozaydin August 28, 2010, 2:12 pm

    Dear David :
    I wonder why all critics against online and OER come from teachers.
    No other people are against.
    I say very bluntly that after 20 years we will not need any teachers for learning in the sense of today’s teachers.
    We will need some other format. So I urge from today education schools should plan for 20 years from now .

  • Amy Kinsel August 30, 2010, 6:09 pm

    David,
    I just read your thoughtful reply to my post. I returned last night from being out of town for 10 days and haven’t had a chance yet to think carefully about your rebuttal, but I will do so and give you some further thoughts and ideas later this week. Thanks for the continuing dialog on and important topic.
    Amy Kinsel