Thursday, April 22, 2010

The messiness that is Open Education

Via Stephen Downes' blog I found this Wesley Fryer post and from that I watched the David Wiley video. My visceral reaction to any preaching , and I take it that what David Wiley was doing was to preach on behalf of openness, is throw up a wall of skepticism to avoid being immediately infected and then look hard for flaws in what is being preached. My experience is that preachers want to paint a world of black and white in which choices are straightforward. They have no patience for shades of gray. In this case the Wiley message is pure and simple - instructors should be generous with their content which means they should share it openly - while reality is messy and complex. In the rest of the post, I will illustrate some of the issues.

In the movie The Firm, the John Grisham story of a Memphis Law Firm that really is a front for the mob, the hero Mitch McDeere (Tom Cruise) let's his wife Abby (Jeanne Tripplehorn) know by whispering in her ear with the stereo playing loudly that their house is bugged. Mitch desperately wants to talk to Abby but needs to take the conversation outside, where others can't listen in. To be open with her he needs to wall off the rest of the world.

Going from fiction to reality, I taught a class last fall where I blogged as did the students (look at the left sidebar on the class blogg). We had some interesting interchanges that way and the students produced some good stuff. But my most heated exchanges with students happened one-on-one in my office or by email and some of the work they produced never found its way to their blogs or mine. These students wanted to treat their work as a private matter. They were ok discussing with me but not ok in sharing with their classmates. For my part, I tried to respect that. This meant not just keeping what they produced private. It meant keeping my reactions to their work private as well.

But that was a small seminar class. What about in a big lecture course? Surely in such a course one can separate out the content pushed to the students by the instructor, such as the the PowerPoints the instructors distribute, from the interactions the instructor has with the students, where the former are made openly available while the latter have some "closed door" aspect to ensure student privacy. That makes sense, doesn't it?

Unfortunately, what seems a clear distinction is in reality a blur. Consider the pedagogic approach known as Just In Time Teaching, were students are given some assessment prior to class. These JITT pre-flights are read by the instructor and scanned for common errors and interesting ways students communicate their current understanding of the subject matter. It is good teaching practice to incorporate some of these students responses directly into the instructor presentation. The instructor then modifies the lecture to address the student issues. By being responsive in this manner, the instructor shows concern for student learning and the students get the instructor to focus on their issues. All of that is for the good. But now, with the student submitted content, should the PowerPoint be out in the clear or behind password protection? If it is in the clear and the students know that, might it affect how the students respond to the JITT assessment? I don't know the answer to these questions. I suspect that good answers must be given on a case by case basis.

Student privacy is one issue and since there is FERPA the legality aspect confounds clear thinking on what we ought to do for the very best teaching and learning reasons. I mention this because there are privacy issues with the instructor as well and to my knowledge there is no comparable law to FERPA that protects instructor privacy. Again, this might be done for the best possible pedagogic reasons. Elsewhere I've argued to support the approach advocated by Nancy Chism, where faculty engage in a repeated cycle of which experimentation with the pedagogy is a part. Experiments can fail. Broadcasting those failures, the instructor may bear an undue burden from the bad outcome. Over time the experimental approach will likely create more effective instruction, but there is a risk in any one instance. An instructor might be more willing to try out new approaches if there is some shielding from the pernicious impact when the teaching experiment goes awry. Should the gains from openness trump these concerns? I don't know. As with the previous case, my belief is that the right solution will be highly idiosyncratic.

Let me shift away from privacy to a different issue. Recently I've become aware of a textbook for intermediate microeconomics that in early form was solo authored by Preston McAfee and in its new version is co-authored with Tracy Lewis. The book is freely available from FlatWorld Knowledge, where David Wiley is the guru. However, the book comes without ancillary material such as simulations to illustrate the content or online assessments that students might do to test their understanding. For example, consider this competitor text by Besanko and Braeutigam, where the first 8 chapters are available as pdfs, there are Excelets (authored by me), and self-tests for the students. I'm not trying to promote this book in any way, shape, or form. I simply want to observe that in the adoption decision over textbook that instructors make, these ancillaries (and the test bank the publisher provides) can matter a great deal.

Yet the provision of the textbook itself and the ancillaries happen under quite different circumstances. McAfee, a chaired professor at Cal Tech, and Tracy Lewis, a chaired professor at the Fuqua School of Business at Duke, are near to if not right at the top of the food chain in the economics profession. They can afford to be generous and share their work. It matters not what their motives are, whether a sense of noblesse oblige, the warm glow from giving (economists are not usually known for that), or a shrewd business sense where the benefits from giving away their intellectual property gets capitalized right back into their reputations, via speaking engagements, consulting fees, or salary enhancement. In the world in which they operate, textbook authoring is a sidebar but akin to scholarly journal writing, on which their reputations are based. For scholarly work, getting the work out there is the imperative. They don't need to make their livelihood off of royalties from the text, and seem to have enough incentive to author it without the royalties. So be it.

The ancillary and assessment content are authored by different individuals. In this case I'm an outlier. I wrote those Excelets without ever using the Besanko and Brauetigam text, just because I was interested in seeing whether the content has use value with the students (it does). I did this as a fee for service activity - no royalty whatsoever. That part may be typical. But my motive was anything but. I'm a well paid administrator and would have produced the content freely had their been a credible way to distribute the content to test its effectiveness.

Many of the authors of the ancillary and assessment content are adjuncts or less well known tenure-track faculty. They need a different sort of incentive to create and update the content than do the textbook authors. The money matters to them. Further, if one were to imagine a different regime where that content were also open, where it was the employer university rather than the textbook market that provided the incentive for these authors, so that content could be provided in the open then, unfortunately some perverse additional incentives come into play. These instructors start looking expensive to the departments relative to potential substitute instructors. Once the content is produced, the departments would have incentive to let these instructors go and hire replacements. Such is life in the world of the adjunct.

So one might hope to separate out the textbook from the assessment content, the former provided in an open way as Wiley advocates, the latter provided in a market. Seven or eight years ago, this is what I hoped would be the solution.

We've had experience since then which makes me wary of that. On the one hand, students do not seem to be reading textbooks much these days. Textbook purchase, even of used books, has been going down for quite a while. On the other hand, there was a very interesting experiment with Aplia, a company founded by the economist Paul Romer, who believed it was the homework problems that were the key and the regular market for textbooks wasn't doing a good job of providing that. (He was right on these points.) Let's instead have a market just dedicated to online homework. In my heart, I wanted that experiment to work.

A couple of years ago Aplia was bought out by the publisher, Cengage. The publishers have figured out that they have to bundle the textbooks with the assessments and sell the two jointly. It's like buying a car and getting the sun roof even if you don't want that. A lot of instructors want the assessments only. The publishers are saying to do that, students must buy the book too.

The situation appears to me unstable, but I have no sense what will replace where we are right now. It should be noted that there are some open communities for assessment based on the quiz engine LON-CAPA. I believe there are fairly vibrant communities for the Life and Chemical Sciences as well as for Physics. But to join such a community an individual instructor would need some commitment from the instructor's campus. It is therefore unlike adopting a textbook, which requires no such campus commitment.

It would be good to hear David Wiley talk about these other, messier issues. They are hard and lack simple solutions. There is in the profession, it's not just Wiley who does it, a tendency to advocate hard for what is a partial solution and ignore the rest of the concerns. I'd like to see somebody draw a circle large enough so that all the issues are on inside. Then pose a solution to the whole kit and kaboodle. If openness solves the whole thing, I'm a monkey's uncle. More likely, there is the Clay Shirky point. The technologies are disruptive. There may be nothing that solves the whole thing. We may have to grapple with various half-loaves for quite a while till the problem morphs in such a way that something stable emerges.

Why can't our rhetoric embrace this complexity?


Rob Reynolds said...

I think you have hit on a major difficulty with regards to the conversation on open content (which I generally advocate) and premium resources(which I have been paid for producing). Their use and availability within Higher Education is varied across different disciplines, and the economic systems that support and consume them are more complex than is often presented. It is not a case of one size fits all.

Lanny Arvan said...

For starters, it would be good to identify who is producing open content now as an individual choice, not because the institution is advocating it and why are they doing it. This would be interesting research. It's equally important to know who isn't doing it who might, again with the why question. I suspect mostly it is because the question hasn't been given any thought. But once the thought is there, among those who persist it would be to learn the reasons.