These are some thoughts I had today after a conversation with Dan McGuire of SABIER. But I should stress that although catalyzed by some things Dan said, responsibility for these musings is mine alone – especially if they’re flakey!
I met Dan at the “E”ffordability Summit at UW Stout last March. He lives in the Twin Cities, so we had that in common. And he used to work for AT&T during their foray into the PC market, so we have that common tech experience too.
I had asked Dan to talk to me a bit about the history of OER before I became involved and interested in it in the last year. After his career in computers, Dan worked for the Minneapolis Public Schools for sixteen years. Then he helped Augsburg University shift all (400+) of their courses from face-to-face to a hybrid model, using Moodle. Dan was also involved in making a K-12 science curriculum, where he said part of the key to the district’s success was teaching and encouraging teachers to both create and to curate open content. Curate may be a relevant term for me to remember as I’m talking with faculty.
One thing that has struck me about the difference between K-12 and Higher Ed is that K-12 is much more focused on shared standards than many Higher Ed faculty seem to be. In the MinnState system we’re beginning to focus on a transfer pathways curriculum, which may be a way of establishing some uniformity between the ways similar courses are taught at various campuses. The bulk of the focus, naturally, seems to be directed at the 2-year to 4-year transition; but along the way there may also be a little more visibility from one 4-year institution to the next. Maybe even a chance to collaborate.
Dan and I dicussed that faculty sometimes seem acutely concerned about the possibility of losing autonomy or authority over their curricula and course content in a shift to more open resources, although I don’t think this is a necessary result of such a change. Dan suggested that a way to avoid a loss of control might be for faculty to drive the change. They should take authorship, I think he said, because everybody would be happier to have instructors drive this change. Nobody in the institution really wants to take on this task. The implication I’ve picked up in some other conversations, though, seems to be that some of the other constituents will push for someone else to drive the change, if faculty don’t step up.
Then the conversation shifted to an issue that seems to concern Dan quite a bit. He made the case for what he described as an “elegant” combination of tools like Pressbooks, Hypothes.is, and D2L. I was a bit surprised, because I hadn’t really considered the LMS to be a player in this new open ecosystem I’ve been imagining for my courses. Sometimes it’s easy to see the LMS as a necessary but less-than-ideal partner. The more I thought about it, though, the more sense it made to try to try to make the LMS a key component of a new course design. Especially when the alternative may be abandoning that territory to the control of a corporate turnkey solution that purports to reduce instructor effort but may really be trying to (or may inadvertently) disintermediate teachers.
Until now, I hadn’t really considered the LMS as a potential bulwark in a defense against encroachment by corporate “homework and assessment” providers. Several publishers seem to be attracted to this new value add – some have even gone so far as to declare the traditional textbook “content” market is dead. If the profitability of course content ever approaches zero due to the growing number of people like me who share our content in the commons under CC licenses, they seem ready to jump ship and make their money elsewhere. Of course, the value of content doesn’t really approach zero – but content creation is complex and expensive to manage. So maybe it makes sense to jump. Apparently (I hadn’t really thought of it this way until now), several for-profit corporations including some that present themselves as the best friends of “Open” are targeting traditional LMS functions such as homework and quizzing, providing “solutions” that replicate the things instructors traditionally do inside an LMS like D2L. This may be more problematic than just disintermediating instructors, though.
I’m a big fan of Jaron Lanier and for years I’ve been reading his books about the problems of the internet, server “stacks” that gain competitive advantages from the data they harvest from users, filter bubbles, and social media algorithms. The problem with a big “stack” like Amazon or Google is that they have the ability to use information they accumulated by offering your free email or keeping track of decades worth of your searches, to create a competitive advantage that other folks who lack the access to extreme network effects can’t share. What happens if we give student information to an organization and allow it to become a “stack”? It might make business sense for a corporation to give free access and free services to users in order to aggregate data. If the users are poor students or budget-constrained institutions and the services replace expensive textbooks or provide infrastructure or tools that typically come with a price-tag, that can seem like a good idea.
There’s a simple reason corporations want to give you stuff in return for your data: because the data has value. Even if you can’t capitalize on that value yorself, your competitor can. If an institution is concerned about competition from outside its walls (and most probably should be), then why would they ever give away their most valuable asset for short-term cost reductions? And what about student privacy? If a corporation knows everything about a student except her name, do they really not know her name if they want to?
Thought experiment: what would happen if a for-profit corporation that portrayed itself as a friend of the open movement found itself talking to a state university system that had just been tasked by legislators with creating Z-Degrees at three of its 2-year campuses in a single academic year. The friendly corporation could offer OER textbooks sourced from the commons, to help the system show a reduction in student textbook costs. It could bundle those OER textbooks with homework and assessment products that aren’t free but don’t count as a textbook expense, so the system could adopt them and meet the requirements of its mandate. The system could buy a turnkey solution and market it to instructors as a reduction of their workloads.
What would be wrong with that? It might reduce student out-of-pocket expenses, if the course fees or tuition bump associated with the “inclusive access” homework and testing systems weren’t too high. And it would certainly reduce textbook expense, even if it didn’t reduce overall student expenses that much. Maybe some of the money could come from the funds the legislature earmarked for the system to incentivize faculty adoption or remixing or authoring OER. Oh wait, that means that money wouldn’t be available for faculty to actually do that. Well, maybe dealing with one friendly, open-seeming corporation is easier and faster than convincing a lot of instructors and professors to change the way they’ve been doing things?
The problem (or one of several problems) is that in the long run, if faculty don’t lead the change, they’re going to be left behind by change. Outsourcing the change is probably an effective way of preventing most faculty from changing. The system pays for the change it is mandated to achieve, but faculty who are not directly affected by the purchased changes go on living their lives as before. They don’t see any of their peers doing a new thing, getting excited about it, getting rewarded for it. To whatever degree the change (Z-Degrees or whatever else) becomes the hot new thing, they drift farther from the cutting edge. To the extent that an outside vendor is providing the cutting edge, the value of the rest of the faculty is decreased.
These are just some ideas I had after an interesting conversation this afternoon. I’ll think about them some more, and probably talk with Dan about them again soon as well as some other people. They may be completely off base – and if you think so, set me straight! They’re certainly no one’s responsibility but mine.