Friday, March 18, 2005

Student Participation

I recently read Steven Weber's book about Open Source and have been encouraging some colleagues to read it. One of the interesting ideas about open source is that many of the programmers involved willingly devote their time to the effort. Weber identifies several "selfish" motives for a programmer to do this - learning how to program in new ways, establishing a reputation as a programmer who writes good code, and interacting in a socially valuable project that affirms the sensibilities of community that the programmer shares are among the main motivations.

In reading the book I had in the back of my head the following question: What lessons might transfer to the setting that has been my preoccupation - instruction at the college level? In particular, where there are students serving the role of mentor/teacher for other students or the role of creator of learning objects, might it be possible to get these students to donate their time, not out of philanthropy, but rather out of motivations that are akin to what moves the programmers in open source.

While this is an interesting question to be asking about students who are enrolled in a specific course, I want to focus on the situation where the students have already taken the course and in that sense are more experienced than those currently enrolled. Assuming we want to see this type of time allocation from students, the question is must we require it as coursework of a sort, must we pay these students for their labor, or is there a third way. Let me call this hypothetical third way "open service learning." The "service learning" part is straightforward enough. The students who are acting as mentor/teachers or as content creators are providing a service that has social value and they are learning in the process of providing that service. The "open" part needs more comment. In part it is to show respect for the open source software movement and that this approach would like to mimic the open source software approach in some respects. And in part, it suggests that the learning objects generated under this approach be licensed in a way similar to the licensing of open source software. The two are related, I believe. Let's see if I can explain why.

First, let me describe some issues with the other forms of eliciting labor from the students. If I had the a good and motivated student who wanted to work for me as a mentor/teacher in an economics class I'm going to teach, I could offer the student independent study credit for her troubles. Since I'm an economics professor presumably my expertise is in the teaching and learning of economics. To the extent that being a mentor/teacher makes the student learn economics beyond what the student learned in taking the course from me earlier it is fitting an proper for the student to receive economics credit. But suppose that while there is some of that, more of the learning is in the form of improved communication skills, learning how to frame economics ideas so the other students will understand them better, not learning more about the economics itself.

Learning how to teach others is an important social skill, but it is not economics. So should the student receive economics credit for it? If not, should the student receive any credit whatsoever?

Alternatively, I could offer the student wages for the work contributed. Normally instructional personnel get paid by the department offering the course. But academic departments are not set up to pay undergraduates to serve as mentor teachers. The model is of the faculty member as the master instructor and the graduate student TAs as the faculty in training. Are the undergraduate students meant as substitutes for these other labor inputs? If so, that will lose. This is the old cost argument. If at this time we are looking at the approach primarily to save money, the other input providers will balk and university will be chastised for lowering the quality of instruction. If, however, the undergrads are viewed as an add on to cost. that will also lose, because we won't be able to afford it.
(In the long run, I believe that both the substitute and the add on to cost approaches will have some merit. But I think it is wrong for the near term.)

So that leaves labor input that is donated by students but then is added on to what we're already doing in instruction (from the perspective of volume of human resources not from the perspective of how to better teach the courses; the pedagogy should change to accommodate the use of the undergrads). This may seem like wishful thinking and perhaps it is. But I remain hopeful.

In the near term the focus will be on large gen ed courses and "blended learning,," meaning more online pieces to the course and reduced seat time. It is natural to use undergrads in this setting, for example as nighttime online TAs. Let's say that happens and let's so those undergraduate helpers get engaged in the activities. Then we have the seed for these students to work beyond their compensation, for other rewards. This is the toe in the door toward open service learning.

The campuses that are encouraging these things to happen from above need to embrace an open courseware licensing agreement for the exchange of learning objects. As Weber points out, the software licensing can serve as a form of governance to coordinate the community actions. in this case the idea is that if everyone else is donating their learning objects then the engaged student and faculty creators will want to donate their own learning objects and they will want to put in the time to understand how they might use the creations of others. The licensing can set the pre-conditions for this to happen and further it shows institutional commitment and foresight into how open service learning is likely to evolve. Moreover, my belief is that if students are donating their time to create reusable learning objects, other students will donate their time to mentor their fellow students, so long as their are tangible rewards from it, the key one being engagement with a faculty member who is trying earnestly to improve instruction.

We who are administrator in higher ed with a charge of promoting undergraduate instruction need to work on setting these pre-conditions and then to get out of the way so we don't block creative efforts from the students and faculty themselves.

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