Friday, November 21, 2014

Believe It OER Not

I'm schizophrenic and in several different ways.  I suspect that many of my friends and colleagues in higher ed are schizophrenic too.   One dimension of the schizophrenia that might not be so common but it quite strong with me is about letting go versus still caring.  It has come to the fore especially over the last 4+ years since I've been retired.  I love flaunting that I take naps - both that I have the time to do so and the peace of mind to be able to find that temporary reverie.  The next LMS? - I don't care.  The future of learning spaces? - I don't care about that either.  Yet the truth is that I remain vexed about where higher ed is heading specifically in regard to undergraduate education and where my campus is heading in particular.  An overused expression as of late is "race to the bottom."  We seem in it, at full stride. Might it be possible, via forethought and quite public argument, that we can identify a shared mission to benefit both the students and their university and thereby move, not quite so quickly, though still with all due speed, to a somewhat higher plateau?  In this post I will try to sketch what some of that forethought might be about. In my dreams, that sketch would be sufficient to engender a good chunk of public argument about the ideas.

Another dimension of the schizophrenia, this one I'd guess is much more common, is about whether universities should be guided internally by hard headed business practices - is there a revenue stream to attach to the activity in a way where revenues cover the costs? - or if, instead, social obligation should drive the mission and revenues be damned. The circumstance that brings this issue into focus on my campus juxtaposes the decline in state dollars as a fraction of the university's budget with the university's historical mission as the Land Grant college in Illinois.  During the four years that I was an associate dean in the College of Business, it is this particular schizophrenia that bothered me the most, as my peers (department heads and other A-Deans) seemed to feel comfortable ignoring the mission aspect when the revenue piece wasn't forthcoming.

Let me include one further dimension, not meant to make for an exhaustive list, but to round out the other two so as to be able to construct a picture with more depth. This one is on charitable giving versus what I would call social gifting,  The issue from the point of view of the donor is whether they are two separate things or substitutes for one another.  The IRS has confounded the issue for us, by having us consider gifts to organizations rather than to individuals and by calling it a charitable contribution if the organization has not-for-profit status.  Plainer meaning would require the recipient of charity to be poor or in need in some other obvious way.  In contrast, social gifting is done irrespective of the status of the recipient other than that the recipient benefits from the gift.  An instructor who goes out of her way to help students in her class, students who are struggling and might fail the course absent her help, is providing a social gift. Others might not see it that way and argue instead that she is merely doing her job.  That really is the point.  The boundary between doing the job and social gifting is amorphous.

Given that, at issue when juxtaposed with charitable giving is whether the abilities of the giver should matter as much as the needs of the recipient.  The university has a charitable fund drive each fall.  It is something done without much reflection at all, yet it has the imprimatur of the university behind it.  Social gifting on campus, in contrast, happens in a much more ad hoc way - whether through students in an RSO doing volunteer work for a good cause, a service-learning course situated in the community, the teaching example I gave above, or many other small but uncoordinated acts of selflessness on the part of the giver.  The reason to consider social gifting from the institutional perspective is that a much larger consequence might be attained were this done than with comparable effort to charitable giving, because the social gifting reflects the expertise of the giver.

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The above is meant as preliminary matter for considering institutional embrace of MOOCs and OERs.  My campus, which is a Coursera partner, seems to be going gangbusters over MOOCs, as they now have found a place with a business model behind them.  This has been happening while the attention given to MOOCs by Educause and other national ed tech organizations has cooled considerably.  That cooling notwithstanding, the embrace of MOOCs on campus may be a very good thing, because it is happening with eyes wide open rather than merely as a matter of faith.  Time will tell whether this was a good choice or not.  Yet I can see it having a clear side benefit now.  The people who support ed tech activities on campus and are involved in MOOC creation have a clearer mission, a more obvious sense of purpose.  That in itself is empowering.  Its good to see friends and colleagues so engaged.  

Yet in a different way that I find regrettable, the embrace of MOOCs seems to have crowded out in the campus thinking any effort to promote OERs.  Let me take a brief sojourn on how OERs might emerge and what the campus should be doing about this. 

First, here is a quickie definition.  OER to me means online modular content, such as simulations and micro-lectures, that is freely available to potential users of this content and is findable by them.  This conception of OER doesn't require a depository, such as MIT's OCW, nor a referatory, such as MerlotUNESCO provides a definition that includes licensing for re-use.  Maybe that is necessary when considering OERs from the institutional perspective.  It has been my experience that it is not necessary in the transaction between creator and users - the licensing is implied by the the placing of the content where users can find it.  What OER rules out in my definition is that the content can't reside in a closed container that requires authentication to get access.

Further, the focus on modular content is meant to get at the online stuff that accompanies courses with a substantial on-ground component.   Many of those courses are taught with some Learning Management System.  Out of convenience primarily, also perhaps because a culture has developed to support the practice, most of the modular content created for these courses also resides in the LMS.  There is no necessity for this, especially when the content has been created by the instructor.  The content could just as easily be place in an open container.  For example, here are two folders meant for my current class that reside in my university account at  The first is for presentation content and the second is for Excel files, most of which are self-grading homework.  This is sufficient to satisfy the requirement that the content be open.  Let me defer on the content being findable for a bit and first get at the question of audience for such content.

When Merlot was a brand new initiative, the focus on audience was other instructors who are teaching the same or a similar course at their own institutions.  The thought was that if somebody has developed a really great module on some topic, then it would make a lot more sense for other instructors to use that module too rather than develop something similar themselves.   But as content of this sorts proliferates the instructor who is willing to use content created by somebody else needs to identify the really good content and distinguish it from the mediocre stuff.  Absent some way to find good content quickly, the search for usable stuff might prove too daunting.  Merlot's solution at the time was to have the content peer reviewed, an interesting thought but ultimately one that didn't work well.  I suspect that most faculty today don't know about Merlot at all, let alone check their site to see if there is interesting content for the course they teach.

An alternative solution to the identifying-quality-stuff problem is to rely on institutional branding.  Indeed, UNESCO's embrace of OCW as the quintessential example of OER fits with the further idea that the instructors who utilize the content developed elsewhere will be teaching in an LDC, where the online content may be even more important than it is for the class where it was originally developed, because substitute content, such as from a textbook, may not be available.  Thus OER was conceived as a way to export educational material in a very inexpensive way from the rich nations to the poor, one that bypassed the normal market processes.  While MIT, as first mover, got a lot of mileage out of OCW, it doesn't seem to have produced a lot of coattails among other providing institutions, as far as I can tell.

For a while iTunes U was a hot item and seemed to offer a solution.  Content could be branded by institution but housed in a common repository for all participating institutions.   Yet interest in iTunes U has cooled considerably since 7 or 8 years ago and it really never was a place for modular content but rather for full lectures that were recorded by campus video producers.  For content directly produced by instructors, other video repositories were preferable then and that remains true now.

This brings me to consider a different audience - students who are taking the same course on their own campuses but are looking online for supplemental material on a specific topic or a small subset of topics.  Many students are reluctant to ask for help from their own instructors.  Finding supplemental help online is much gentler on the psyche of the struggling student.  And it may be substantially more convenient as well.

This audience is potentially much larger than the audience of instructors who might use the materials.  Hence, even if one is still primarily interested in the instructor re-use of the content, the student use can be considered as a way to crowd source the evaluation of the content, with crowd sourcing more effective than peer review.  Further, while we have been considering the adoption decision by other instructors, the creator needs feedback too as to the quality of what was produced.  The class where the content is initially deployed offers one venue for getting feedback on the content quality.  But students in that class will tie evaluation of the content to how well it prepares them for the exams the instructor writes.  Students elsewhere won't evaluate the content in this way, since to them it is supplemental only.  They will evaluate it only on whether it helps them to understand the topic at the time they work through the content.  So their evaluation will be interesting to the creator, especially in those cases where the external audience is quite positive about the content but students in the class are antagonistic to it.

Now we're ready to get at the issue of how to make the content findable by the audience.  I offer a few bits of evidence on this point from my own experience.   This is not a controlled experiment and I don't want to claim otherwise.  But I think it is highly suggestive.  First, take a look at the results of a search at on my name.  Focus on the audio (podcast) content and video content only.  None of the items have gotten more than 100 hits - meaning very low usage.  Next tale a quick look at the Web site called The Economics Metaphor.  This is a blog that has the audio content available in individual posts via an embedded player.   This is also quite a bit of other content.  But that site also gets very limited traffic.  Finally, take a look at the videos in my profarvan channel at YouTube.  There is much more traffic at this site.  The one video called Income and Substitution Effects (a real barn burner) has over 15,000 hits.  There are quite a few videos with more than 1,000 hits.

The conclusion I draw from this is that to make the content findable there must be a video micro-lecture about the content, even if there is also a simulation on which the video is based.  (The Excel files that form the basis of my videos can be downloaded too.  The links to those are in the description of the videos.)  The videos themselves must be housed in a place where the users looking for similar content will find it.  YouTube may be the single best place for that.  A more diligent person than I am might place the same video in different places, Vimeo and DailyMotion, for example, in addition to YouTube.  The content will compete for attention with other like content at these sites.  That it is findable is not the same that it will be viewed.  But clearly, the former is necessary for the latter.

* * * * *

The above is the easy part.  The hard part is getting tolerably good content produced in significant enough volume that it matters at the level of the institution.  There are several impediments to reckon with here

1.  It is quite time consuming to produce good content.

2.  The creator needs understanding both of the technology and of the learning issues in order to produce good content.

3.  Much of this should happen in the high enrollment courses, where there is apt to be a much larger audience for the content, but such courses are increasingly taught by adjuncts.

4.  The textbook publishers have incentive to keep this activity from happening, as potentially production of this content could undermine their sales down the road. Further, the large course instructors typically exhibit substantial lock-in to the textbook.

5.  Somebody with the facility to produce high quality content may prefer to do so to amplify his or her own income rather than to give away the content for free.  Such people, therefore, are candidates to product ancillary materials for a textbook, if they are not doing so already. 

6.  Undoubtedly there are other issues that I'm unable to anticipate here but that would emerge were an effort put forward to try to generate such content.

Instead of trying to develop a coherent plan to address these issues, one that I don't really have, let me instead make a case for why such a plan is needed and provide some elements that might very well be put into such a plan.

A.  Rich kids who have gone to good suburban high schools bypass many of the high enrollment classes by already having the AP credit to place out of them.  Those who do take these courses, then, are apt to be from less well off families and poorer schools districts or are the less able students admitted from those suburban high schools.  Partly for this reason, it is imperative for the campus to make the high enrollment courses as good as they can be.

B.  The high enrollment classes are taken disproportionately by first year students.  It is their initial experience with college.  There are many inadvertent but pernicious consequences.  Students often get comfortable with being anonymous in class and find they can get by with little effort most of the time and then some cramming right before exams. Rote is rewarded, disproportionately so.  This is the other reason to make the high enrollment courses as good as they can be - to counteract these tendencies.

C.  There needs to be a sustained faculty development program aimed squarely at the adjunct instructors.  Many are too isolated and don't have a community of peers to rely on to improve their own teaching.

D.  Students can and should be involved in producing online content.  At present the campus promotes undergraduate research as a way for students to become more engaged with their learning.  Being part of an ongoing, instructor-led project to develop online content for the instructor's course would also engage students in their learning and have the additional benefit that the product that results from this engagement would have positive social value.

E.  Some metrics of quality are needed to assess whether faculty development activities and student produced content are at all worthwhile.  Usage of OER content provides metrics that would be interesting to look at and that stand apart from the usual course evaluation data which we tend to rely on.

F.  Illinois is certainly not the only only campus facing issues with the high enrollment classes.  If parallel efforts happened at peer institutions, then instructors should also become importers of OER content developed elsewhere and quite possibly become part of a community of practice for both developing and sharing OER content.

* * * * *

Let me wrap up.  OERs may be less sexy than MOOCs.  They certainly imply less control of how the content will be used or whether it will be used at all.  But OERs are more consistent with the outreach education mission of the university.  Further, they are more consistent with making an effort with online content development across the board. (Though I focused on high enrollment classes, above I didn't mean that only high enrollment classes should produce OERs).  Therefore, pushing OERs offers potential to positively benefit the entire curriculum.

I confess that there is quite a bit of wishful thinking here, too much of which is based in my own experience.  Now retired, I am not time constrained in my own content production.  I've been doing stuff in Excel since 2001, have been recording my voice in an instructional setting for even longer, and have substantial accumulated knowledge that others might find difficult to replicate.  And for many years learning technology was my job.  During those years I lived my job. 

These are all weaknesses with the argument put forward here.  The weaknesses notwithstanding, it seems to me there is enough upside to consider OERs seriously and then argue the case, for and against.  I hope the piece will encourage others to do just that.

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