As we see colleges like Rio Salado and for-profits like National, Argosy, and Walden “Universities” create huge online programs, we see more and more courses designed by “teams” and taught by associate faculty/staff. When online learning began, of course, faculty created their own courses and taught them, but there were efficiencies to be had by creating one course and having it be reused by everyone. Publishing companies were quick to start creating their own courses to go with their textbooks, complete with Blackboard cartridges and/or their own learning management systems (I was asked by at least one of them to write a course they could sell). And now Google and Pearson are teaming up with their own “free” LMS (you’ll pay with your personal and marketing information) so that people can “share” courses (in their LMS’s format) under a Creative Commons license (Attribution only, of course, so they can be sold later — it wouldn’t do to have them be Non-Commercial and Share Alike).
Sense my disgust? To me, these are all canned courses, made to last a long time and be consumable by anyone, but more importantly, taught by anyone. We continue to sojourn, often voluntarily and with enthusiam, into the Land with No Professor, as detailed elegantly by Alex Wright in his From ivory tower to academic sweatship of 2005.
So now I hear things like this more than ever:
“So what’s wrong with using the publisher’s PowerP*ints if it’s good stuff?”
“So why shouldn’t I use the course cartridge? I create and run my own discussion boards.”
“They do all this video and stuff better than I do — that keeps students engaged.”
I sputter around, after I get my chin off the floor. What about the de-professionalization of teaching? what about improving those technology skills? can’t you see it’s all the commercialization of education and you are a willing participant?
But today, after thinking about this issue for, oh, fifteen years, it occurred to me what’s really, really wrong with using course cartridges and canned material.
It’s modeling the wrong thing.
Modeling is very important — some say it’s the most important aspect of college teaching. It’s our main job, Stephen Downes says, modeling and demonstrating. A faculty member shared with me only today an exam where he accidentally had two questions that were the same, but one phrased concretely and one conceptually. The students aced the concrete question and failed the conceptual question, though the answer was the same. I suggested that instead of asking them what happened, he instead should model how he developed the question, what he was thinking he’d get in response, and what happened when he saw the completed exams. I suggested this would show the students he’s human and works on these things, share his method with them so they feel included, get him good answers to why it occurred, and review the material, all at the same time. That’s what modeling does.
So what does it mean when we build our courses on material created by someone else?
If we are using it wholesale, out of the can, we are modeling a lack of creativity (in addition to implying that our own view as a discipline expert is kind of beside the point). It’s very difficult to model how historians do history (or chemists do chemistry, or writers write) when we are using someone else’s interpretation or method.
We are also displaying an absence of critical thinking, the kind that we say we want our students to engage in, unless we are using canned content as the start of a discussion about perspectives on that content (I wish that happened a lot, but it doesn’t).
And we’re showing a lack of respect for our own professions as practitioners of both a discipline and of teaching.
If we want to promote a thoughtful citizenry that can make important decisions, work creatively to change what’s wrong, and innovate to make our society better, it’s a pretty poor example to rely on canned material.
Is there a good way to use all this excellent content? You bet. We can disassemble, disaggregate, reinvent, repurpose, re-create. We can take just what we need (quiz questions, maps, slides) and use it to support our pedagogy. If the publisher doesn’t allow that (I can’t take apart the PowerPoints provided by the publisher of my textbook, for example) we don’t use it. We can learn just a few skills — maybe editing video or doing a screencast or slideshow. Make our own stuff. It won’t look professional, and that’s OK. It will look human, and students will be seeing an example of an instructor who makes his own stuff to get a point across. As with modeling the design of a test question, whatever we make will be saying to students that we cared enough to make it to help them understand.
It will also model that we are professionals with viewpoints created from a deep understanding of our fields, individual viewpoints based on common methods, vocabulary and standards. That’s what we want them to do — use the skills of our discipline to better understand the world, and help improve it. As Richard Kahn notes about Howard Zinn’s argument that professors should share not only their viewpoints with the class but how they developed them:
[F]rom a perspective such as Zinn’s, our job as educators is to invite our classes into the rigorous pursuit and production of the living history of ideas—the truth of our unfolding human process in all of its registers. In this way, we thus also model for students how to begin naming and navigating the various socio-cultural forces coalescing around them, to articulate and argue for their own perspectives on society and its institutions, and so in good faith become democratic citizens capable of exerting their own civic leadership.
We certainly can’t do that with a course cartridge.