Thursday, September 15, 2011

Open Modular Content and OERs

Around 11:30 last night, I had already gone to bed, my Economics Metaphor site got a hit from somebody at a sister Big Ten School, via a regular Google search.  The search words were "production table economics" without the quotes.  If you go do that search yourself, a post from that site is prominently displayed, right under the Wikipedia entry.  Yesterday my site got roughly three times the number of hits as it usually gets (the norm is a rather low flow of under 10 hits per day) and many of those who came to the site yesterday got there by doing a similar search.

My inference is that these hits are from students in microeconomics classes and this is the time of the school year where production functions are being taught.  For some reason, perhaps a homework problem that appears intractable, or a pending quiz where the student doesn't have confidence on the material, or the student finding the textbook unclear so looking for an alternative explanation, surely students are motivated to do this the Google search for some such reason.  My further guess is that they are looking for a quick and dirty way out of their dilemma.

On the page they will find an embedded Jing-created screen-capture movie that was posted to YouTube.  This particular movie is very brief (under two minutes) and the captions for the voice narration appear under the movie, unlike if you go directly to YouTube to watch it, where the captions overlay the video.  I believe the little demo given here is fairly clear, even for students that don't have English as their native language.  (Some of the other hits yesterday were from the Philippines.)  Though it is not on my immediate agenda to revise this material, it would be gratifying to learn from the student whether the movie was useful.  I doubt, however, that at the time of night where the student is doing this that the student would be willing to answer a survey question or two on the matter.

When I posted this content, I didn't consider this sort of student demand at all.  I made modular content because I believe that online you have to vary presentation with other activities for the student - an hour of lecture straight through would be devastating and students would turn to Facebook or other diversions after only a few minutes.  In this case I embedded the videos in Moodle quizzes, one video per question, with the thought that the full quiz would be considered dialogic - a little presentation followed by a question and a student response, then another little presentation with the cycle repeating.  I did this in lieu of a textbook and then in class I'd spend time going over the spreadsheet from which the movie was made but not delivering a full lecture on it.  The students in the class itself were not enamored with the approach, but some of that was that my exams were hard and the students didn't have a way to go from what they were getting doing the online work to having a successful strategy for feeling confident about the tests.  The external students who find the particular module, consider it from a different perspective - my exams are irrelevant to them

My thought in making The Economics Metaphor site was as something for instructors elsewhere, who might use some of the content and teaching ideas there, either directly or to inform what they might produce themselves for online or to do in class.   I didn't expect them to use the videos.  Those have my voice.  But there are Excel workbooks that are depersonalized and could be utilized readily if another instructor saw it fit to do so.  In this case, the videos are simply guides to the content in the workbooks and how that might be used.  And there are essays that again could also be used this way.  Those are different than textbook content in two ways - they are longer than those one page insets that many textbooks feature, with the thought that the essays should be interesting in themselves, not merely a means to illustrate the theory, and hence a bit more depth is useful to motivate why these ideas are important - and they are written in a way to enable students to bring their own experiences to bear in thinking through the issues of the essay.  Textbooks, in contrast, are very arms length in how they go about explaining things.

Both the Excel workbooks and essays are novel relative to what other materials instructors might find out there.  So there is potential use value to them.  And maybe I've had some instructors look at this content, but maybe not.  I have no way of knowing short of having them contact me directly and asking me about it.  So far, direct contact hasn't happened at all.  If instructors are indeed looking at this content, they prefer to maintain their anonymity.  The students are a little bit more obvious about this, by virtue of the search terms they enter into Google.

Let me make another point about the students.  Some of them come to this stuff directly from YouTube.  I know that because once in a while I've gotten a request from them via a comment to a particular video to get access to the workbooks - all are publicly available.  And I have a few dozen who subscribe to my channel.  I have no idea what benefits there are to being a subscriber, but if they want to do that more power to them.  I hadn't paid any attention to the channel page till I started getting some subscribers.  Having done so recently, I'm more aware about the variation in hits across my videos.  Some videos are relatively popular, others less so.  That variation is probably explained by external demand.  There are videos by other instructors on the same topic.  So perhaps on some topics students prefer to go to videos created by other instructors, while on other topics students might find what they are getting at their own institution sufficient that they don't need to get additional material about the subject online. 

It is an open question in my mind whether students would like to have mixed and matched modular content as the primary materials in their courses or if even more they'd prefer courses where only assessments were prescribed by the instructor and for presentation material they'd do inquiry on the Web to find suitable content.  I'd guess we are quite a ways from that as the norm, and maybe it never will be the norm. But as supplementary material, we seem to already be there with online modular content and I'd expect this use to grow substantially, without any organized cultivation.

* * * * *

Yesterday I sat in with some folks at the Office of Continuing Education here for part of an ELI Focus Session on Open Educational Repositories (OERs).  Open and Educational I like.  Repositories I'm much less sanguine about, as I will elaborate below.  Further, on the motivation for doing this, I think we collectively need to scratch our heads more.  I'll elaborate about that too.

First, on motivation, the driver seems to be to find free (to the students) or inexpensive alternatives to textbooks.  In other words, to the extent that the textbook market is the victim of publisher monopoly power, the push for OERs is to develop a counter force to that market power.  The approach is novel on the market side of the equation but it is quite conservative on the pedagogic side, the textbook itself a nineteenth century conception.  Having written a post about a year ago entitled Excise The Textbook, one of the few things I've written lately that attracted a fair number of eyeballs, I've got to ask why we want to affirm this particular approach instead of trying to find a modern day alternative that is more suitable.  The argument I made in that piece is that textbooks encapsulate received wisdom and by basing courses on them students come to the point of view that it is their job to absorb the received wisdom and be able to regurgitate it.  On Newtonian Physics, perhaps that makes sense.  On macroeconomics, to offer one example, the students must take a more critical view, as on a daily basis one can read views from eminent economists that directly contradict one another.  If the student is to take a side in this argument or reasonably decide to avoid taking side, how might it be that the student comes to that conclusion?  Textbooks simply aren't helpful that way.

Second, as a discipline (learning technology) we seem not to learn for our own prior experience, the obvious one in this case the emergence of Institutional Repositories to promote scholarly communication.  IRs like OERs were motivated by an agenda to offer alternatives to commercial publication - Journal pricing was (and still is) hyperinflationary and it seemed that commercial publishers were capturing economic profit for providing little value add, with most of the work being done by faculty authors, paid for by universities, often with the additional sponsorship of Federal research grants.  There was a secondary agenda for IRs - to make the research (and the data the research generated) more broadly available, particularly for archival purpose after the authors/researchers are no longer actively manipulating the data.   Truthfully, I don't know where IRs are on this second goal, but this New Yorker piece from last December on The Decline Effect, suggests that more scholarly work needs to be devoted to replication of initial findings, so the secondary goal would seem to have large potential value, even if not much is happening in that area at present.

Third, on faculty development, the OER approach of trying to encourage textbook alternatives seems to ignore a moving down the learning curve approach to producing the content that would seem kind of obvious to me.  In a learning curve approach an instructor might produce one module online and see how students react to that, while leave the rest of the course intact.  The next time around the instructor might produce another module or two and, with any luck, feel more competent than with the first module.  This would imply a multi-year approach to getting the equivalent of a full textbook and if there are discouraging results somewhere along the way it would further imply that some instructors will dropout from the activity before getting all the way there.

Fourth, there seems to be a separation between those who contribute to OERs (the equivalent of textbook authors) and those who might use the materials (the equivalent of textbook adopters).  In the paper based world that separation is warranted and this seems to me is an intellectual holdover from that.  A more current alternative would be a community development and use model.  Instructors would develop some content and adopt other content created elsewhere.   As I understand it, this alternative is embedded into LON-CAPA,which has as its focus the development of assessment materials.  Although LON-CAPA is open source, the community model there hasn't spread to the OER discussion, as far as I can tell.

There are, for sure, serious issues with the community model, mainly around building overall coherence from materials developed at a modular level when there was no prior planning for how those materials might be later integrated.  But here too, I'd guess that a slow moving down the learning curve would be much more robust than doing a whole course this way right off the bat.  Really it would be good to see experiments both of that and of the alternative with a planned approach. 

When the CIC Learning Technology Group was receiving funding from the Provosts (that ended about 10 years ago), there were grants for faculty from multiple Campuses across systems, such as at Illinois and Purdue, to do a joint course online, in whole or in parts.  The emphasis then was to do this for small, upper level classes, a toe in the water and entirely non-threatening approach.  I think we need something like this now but with a focus on the large classes.  If we did, I don't believe OERs would help, at least not an OER that had an institutional brand.  There are other places where open content can reside that would be more neutral regarding institutional affiliation.  Those other places would be preferred for that reason. 

The publishers are revamping their approach to these issues.  We in Higher Ed need to be smarter about them too.  We have a tendency to envision the endpoint of the journey we want to take and then direct our efforts to building the entire path to that endpoint, only to find that path is not well traveled.  Better, I believe, would be to encourage lots of experimentation and see what emerges from that, without making the outcome a foregone conclusion.  We're scared of bottom up because we can't control quality that way.  It's the same mindset that dismissed Wikipedia.  

I believe we'd be better served now by broadly encouraging small sojourns into the making and re-use of modular material than by promoting OERs.  I know I can be a voice in the wilderness, one who has totally lost his direction.  But on this topic, in particular, this alternative view makes sense to me.

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