Open, Value-Added Services, Interaction, and Learning

There was a lot of discussion at OpenEd17 about the relationship between OER and value-added services like platforms. The discussion was energized by an announcement made by Cengage immediately ahead of the conference, but this is a conversation that has been percolating for a while now.

Examples of Value-Added Services in the Context of Open

Both the wider internet and the narrower education space are filled with companies and organizations that provide value-added services around openly licensed software and content. A few examples include:

  • Automattic provides a broad range of for-fee, value-added services around the open source WordPress software, including (hosting), VIP (hosting), Akismet (anti-spam), Jetpack (security), and many others.
  • Pressbooks (Book Oven Inc. according to the receipt I received when I bought services from them for Project Management for Instructional Designers) provides a wide range of for-fee, value-added services based on the open source Pressbooks plugin for WordPress, including hosting, custom branding, support, and a premium PDF rendering engine.
  • Reclaim Hosting offers for-fee, value-added services around open source web hosting and publishing software like Cpanel, Installatron, Apache, WordPress, Known, and Omeka.
  • Carnegie Mellon’s Open Learning Initiative provides for-fee, value-added hosting and customer support services around openly licensed content.
  • OpenStax provides a for-fee, value-added service called OpenStax Tutor around openly licensed content.
  • Lumen provides for-fee, value-added hosting, integration, assessment, messaging, and other services around openly licensed content.
  • Open Up Resources provides teacher training, professional development, and related for-fee, value-added services around openly licensed K-12 content.
  • And of course, Instructure (Canvas), Moodle Pty Ltd (Moodle), Longsight (Sakai), and other companies provide for-fee, value-added services around Learning Management Systems hosting and support.

These and many other value-added services provided around open source software and open content (my apologies if I omitted your service from my list) are critically important in the education context for at least two reasons.

Faculty Capacity and Support

The first has to do with capacity. Most faculty don’t have the technical expertise, the time, or the institutional support to manage their own WordPress installation or do anything more with OER than adopt a free PDF in place of their textbook. In fact, for many faculty, simply using a hosted WordPress site or uploading a free PDF into their LMS is beyond their technical capability, available time, and institutional support.

Do you find that hard to believe? According to the American Association of University Professors, in Fall 2011 41.5% of all instructional staff in US higher education were part-time (adjuncts) and another 19.3% were graduate students. They made up more than 60% of US instructors in higher education. Generally speaking, these instructors are overworked, poorly paid, and poorly supported. When you add in the 15.7% of instructional staff who are full-time, non-tenure-track faculty, the total number of contingent instructional staff in the US reaches 76.4%. These contingent faculty likely teach four or five courses a term – or teach a different class at three different institutions each semester. They do not have the technical expertise, the time, or the institutional support to engage meaningfully with OER.

On a related note, my experience in talking with thousands of faculty in my two decades of advocating for open content has been that the more at-risk students a faculty member is serving, the less likely she is to have technical expertise, time, or access to institutional support. In other words, the faculty in the position to make the biggest difference in students’ lives through OER are the faculty who are most likely to struggle to do so.

If these faculty are to help students realize the potential benefits of OER – which go infinitely beyond offering them a free PDF – they need support. For many contingent faculty, as well as other faculty at severely under-resourced institutions, value-added services from outside the institution may be the only support available to them. I wholeheartedly agree that the contingent faculty situation needs to be addressed in a coherent, systematic manner, and I am glad that there are people working on that issue. But while that important work is being done, faculty need support now. Value-added services are a reasonable way to do provide that support. And with support, they can do amazing things.

Interaction and Learning

The second reason these value-added services are important has to do with student learning. When I listed the things faculty lack above, you may have noticed I omitted pedagogical training, knowledge of basic learning science, or an understanding of instructional design principles. (I omitted these above since I planned to mention them here.) It is widely understood that faculty receive little or no training on these subjects (implying a belief on the part of our institutions that a terminal degree in your discipline will somehow make you an effective teacher – but that’s a subject for a different blog post). Contingent faculty (who, remember, comprise over three quarters of all instructional staff nationwide) are even less likely to receive this kind of training or support than their tenure-track peers. And again, the faculty who serve our most at-risk students are the least likely to receive training or support in these areas.

If you haven’t been trained in learning science or instructional design, uploading a free PDF to your LMS may sound like a great way to use technology to engage students. And to the extent that some proportion of your students would have foregone purchasing a traditional textbook, this will increase student access to learning materials. But this strategy only uses technology to replicate what we could already do with printed books – facilitating the reading of static words and images.

Interactivity – when well designed – can lead to huge gains in learning beyond reading static materials or even using multimedia resources (like watching a video). I think it is generally agreed that we learn by being actively engaged in “doing” more than we learn from passively watching a video or reading a page of text. But in case you are unconvinced, let’s look at a paper by Koedinger, McLaughlin, Jia, and Bier’s titled, Is the Doer Effect a Causal Relationship? How Can We Tell and Why It’s Important from LAK16. In this paper the authors examine the impact of “doing” on thousands of students in several courses. Students in all courses had access to openly licensed readings and interactive activities from Carnegie Mellon’s Open Learning Initiative. Students in some courses also had access to lecture video. The research presented in the paper examines the effect on learning (as measured by quiz grades and final grade) of using these different types of resources. Readings and lecture videos are fairly straightforward formats to understand. Gratefully, the authors describe the “interactive activities” in the courses in some detail:

Interactive activities are aligned with course learning objectives and are embedded in the course content. They provide opportunities for students to test their understanding of concepts and to practice skills. Such learning opportunities take various formats (e.g., multiple choice questions, interactive simulations, drop and drag, matching, and other options) and deliver immediate tailored feedback as-needed (e.g., when a selected answer is incorrect) or as-requested (e.g., in the form of a hint). Many activities are multiple-choice questions, but others, like those shown in Figure 1, provide other forms of response selection (1a) and response construction, including the open-ended submit and compare (1b). In all cases, students have immediate access to correct responses.

What did the authors find?

As shown [in Table 5 in the paper], the doer effect is consistently observed. The standardized coefficient of the effect of doing [using the interactive activities] on outcomes is always significant and much higher than the standardized coefficient of the effect of reading (not always significant). The ratio of the size of the doing to reading effect goes from 2.2 to infinity (because in one case, quiz score in Statistics, the reading effect is not positive) with median of 6 — the same ratio we found previously! In other words, the effect of doing [using the interactive activities] is generally about 6 times greater than the effect of reading across four different courses and involving over 12,500 students. (emphasis added)

OER-as-free-PDF, or even OER-as-affordable-printed-text, increase access to core materials and can be associated with course-level gains in measures of learning and success (like grade and completion rate) because more students have access to the materials they need. But free static resources are no more or less inherently effective at supporting individual student learning than their more expensive static counterparts – because both fail to support meaningful interaction.

But weren’t we supposed to be discussing value-added services, you might be wondering? What’s the connection between interactive activities and value-added services? Interactive activities of the kind described by Koedinger and his colleagues can be created, managed, shared, and used only in the context of a platform. Faculty who struggle to use hosted WordPress are not going to host these kinds of platforms themselves. Institutions that outsource hosting of their learning management systems aren’t going to host these kinds of platforms internally. Consequently, the only way these kinds of platforms are going to be used is if people or organizations provide value-added services around them.

Humans Can Interact with Each Other, Too

I pause here to make a few observations, borrowing Moore’s (1989) framework identifying three types of interaction. The Koedinger-style in-situ activities support student – content interactions and have the benefit of providing an essentially infinite amount of practice with immediate feedback. It’s also worth noting that the permission to engage in the 5R activities granted by OER make entirely new categories of student – content interactions possible. But as Moore suggested, interactions don’t have to take the form of student – content interactions. Student – student interactions and student – teacher interactions can also be deeply meaningful. These interactions have other benefits, including the building of trust, confidence, encouragement, and connection between human beings. However, supporting these interactions among large-ish (10+) numbers of people in ways that will improve their learning is incredibly difficult without the help of platforms.

One of my favorite platforms for supporting meaningful student – student interaction (though this will show my age) was Fle3. Fle3 was, among other things, a structured discussion board that required students to categorize their messages and would only allow certain types of messages to be posted in response to other types of messages. These features encouraged student discussions to develop along an established model of progressive inquiry, rather than meandering aimlessly as conversations on generic discussion boards are wont to do. Here’s an example of what that looked like in Fle3:

One of my favorite platforms for enabling student – teacher interactions (though I will admit I’m biased here) is Waymaker. Waymaker contains a set of semi-automated messaging tools that help faculty see which students need their help, and then send them each an individualized invitation to meet during office hours or talk over Skype. The message includes a list of the specific topics the student is struggling with (based on their performance on formative and summative assessments, whose items are each aligned to specific learning outcomes) so that their conversation can begin with a focus on those areas. Here’s what that looks like:

Let me further pause to acknowledge that yes, your campus already has an LMS, which is a platform. And no, your LMS does not offer support for Koedinger-style, or Fle3-style, or Waymaker-style, or any of the infinite variety of novel student – content, student – student, or student – teacher interactive activities you might want to create, manage, share, and use. Your LMS is a very serviceable integration point where these platforms can be brought together in a coherent whole using LTI, but your campus LMS “is not the droid we’re looking for.” Arguing that your LMS supports all the interactive activities you could ever want to use in support of learning is like arguing that a free PDF provides all the benefits you could ever want from OER.

Concluding Thoughts and the Future of OER

Some of the value-added services offered in conjunction with open source software or OER add very little – if any – value. I haven’t called those out by name here. But there are many which do add significant value, and I’ve listed some of them above. I’ve then described one family of such value-added services – namely platforms that make a wider array of student – content, student – student, and student – teacher interactions available in the context of OER.

It’s easy to get caught up in a means-ends confusion when it comes to OER. Too often our advocacy for OER adoption loses its way and becomes advocacy of OER adoption for the sake of OER adoption. Our once expansive vision of the end goal contracts to simply saving students money, and in that context OER-as-free-PDF is an acceptable solution. And it’s this kind of thinking that I have worried will destroy our movement since 2012. (If you haven’t read this short post, you might consider doing so. My concerns have changed very little in the last 5 years.)

I believe that improving student learning has to be the end goal of everything we do. When we keep that end firmly in mind, the reason we advocate for OER becomes “to enable drastically better student learning while saving students money.” OER adoption is a means to the end of deeper student learning – not an end in itself.

Keeping the goal of deeper learning firmly in mind leads to a range of critically important questions. How can we combine current (generally static) OER with well-designed interactive activities (which, when openly licensed, are also OER)? How do we change the thinking of the OER movement so that OER is no longer synonymous with static content? How do we unleash the full power of OER in the context of the platforms necessary to create, manage, share, and use the interactives we know support better student learning? How do we ensure that interactive activities increase, improve, and strengthen human relationships (student – student and student – teacher) rather than subverting or replacing them? How does the research on interactive activities relate to emerging work on OER-enabled pedagogy (which contains its own unique implications about the platforms necessary for revising, remixing, and redistributing OER)? How can traditional and OER-enabled approaches be combined in a way that will support deeper learning than either approach individually?

Honestly, these are some of the toughest questions I struggle with individually as I worry about the future of the movement. They’re also among the hardest questions we wrestle with in our work at Lumen. But my purpose in writing isn’t to convince you that Lumen’s approach to answering these questions is the best approach. My purpose in writing is to persuade you that these questions are critically important to the future of the movement and to get you thinking about how you will answer them. If nothing else, I hope to help you remember that OER adoption is a means – and not the end. Because a future in which OER-as-free-PDF – “unadulterated by the stain of platforms and other value-added services” – competes against new offerings from publishers that provide a broad range of interactive activities (and support for faculty), is a future in which there won’t be many people using OER.