OER and the Powers that Be

Me: Gosh, I love Open Educational Resources. I hate those high textbook prices, because they’re high for no reason. Plus a lot of them aren’t very good, and go in directions I don’t want. Luckily, there’s a lot available on the web.

Powers that Be (15 years later): Wow, we want to get into OERs! We just discovered we can save students money and achieve local, state and national political kudos for doing this. We’ll have grants!

Me: That’s great! I want to apply. I created two of my own textbooks out of Wikipedia articles that I edited. Then I edited a bunch of primary sources and added them to the books. They’re in pdf. Students just print them if they want to, or read them online – saves tons of money! Where do I sign?

Powers that Be: Oh, no, we don’t want you to create the OERs. Look at all the stuff out there! We’ve got textbooks and materials, not very well organized and into multiple places. Go search those. Adopt one of those. Then you can have the grant.

Me: Oh, well there are some classes I teach where I haven’t done my own books. American History, for example. Hmmm…not much good stuff, though there are quite a few texts available. Here’s one that will do – I just need to annotate it in an accessible way – it doesn’t seem to have the Salem Witch Trials and other important things. It’ll be quite a bit of work. But that’s OK — where do I sign for a grant?

Powers that Be: Oh, well you have to show that you’re saving students money from the previous semester.

Me: But the previous semesters I’ve been using either open resources or my own edited books and materials. I haven’t used a commercial textbook in some of these classes for several years.

Powers that Be: Then you get no grant. You have to show a difference between what your students spent last semester and what they’ll spend with your newly adopted OER.

Me: But I’ve been giving my students OERs for years! I’ve been in the vanguard! A trendsetter! Without people like me you wouldn’t even know what OERs are!

Powers that Be: You’re misunderstanding the goal here. We need to show we are saving students money after we became involved.  That’s what the grant is for. Then we need to show exactly how much we’ve saved. What’s happened over previous years doesn’t matter.

Me: You know, it seems like it’s more important to you to take credit for OERs than to expand their use, or to assist people like me who have been developing, revising and using OERs without compensation for the last two decades or so. Perhaps those who claim that the real purpose behind institutional OER adoption is to allow states to reduce funding to public schools are correct. Is my taxpayer money going to grants like this?

Powers that Be: You bet! Be proud to be a part of such educational innovation. 🙂

The LMS and the End of Information Literacy

Having worked with the Canvas system deeply for several months, and then worked closely with an online student who needed help at various levels, I have concluded that the underlying philosophy of Canvas (and OEI in California) is to remove the information literacy requirement for online learning.

Canvas’ defaults encourage a simplistic, linear course with step-by-step navigation for all tasks. The features for instructors to customize extensively, have students collaborate, and make grading meaningful, are conspicuously missing. When requested in the community, such features meet with success mainly when they adhere to the basic philosophy of simplicity.

computerizedlearningThe implication is that any depth must exist within the instructional materials accessed through the system. At the top level, the environment in which the student must work, the danger of cognitive overload is mitigated by providing as few options as possible. It is a clear return to 4th grade “computerized learning”, the kind that takes place in a lab. Pupils sit at stations, and the software guides them step-by-step by pressing as few buttons as possible. With visual and touch-screen interfaces, this is now even easier. Complete a small task, get instant feedback, press ‘Next’.

The fact that such interfaces prevent branching, distributed, or complex learning is considered to be a feature, not a bug. All information is “chunked” for easy understanding and assessment.

Back in the early 1990s, we were all excited about the open web and its possibilities for the exploration of human information. We were able to look up things that had previously been inaccessible before, and we developed pedagogies designed to use that easy-to-access information. To do so meant designing our own pathways through the material, to help students turn their study into knowledge.

With the coming of the read-write web, it became possible for users to interact with the software in online spaces. IRC and other forms of synchronous chat had been available, but required some technical knowledge. Web-based interactions, which required little technical understanding, became simpler and easier to use. With the development of private web spaces like Facebook and Google, companies came to control the interfaces, simplifying even further what we needed to know to use the tools, and pruning the content we could access easily.

wikinoAlthough at first there had been plans to teach information literacy as a school requirement, this trend has tapered off because of such ease of use. In many places, information literacy is still articulated as a goal, but is not implemented in any meaningful way. The result has been students who have no idea what to type into Google when asked to find, for example, information about American imperialism in the late 19th century. We already are aware of the challenges of distinguishing between good and bad sources of information, and want students to distinguish between a scholarly source and a pop culture source. But instead of increasing skills, the fear of bad websites has led to banning certain things, through filters in grade schools and syllabus dictates in college. (When I encouraged my student to use Wikipedia to find primary sources, she was aghast, telling me it had been drilled into her head for years never to use Wikipedia for school.)

Increasing numbers of students have no conception of what constitutes a website, or a link, or a browser. With no understanding of how to navigate a complex web page or database, students have become unable to comfortably navigate a complex online course, regardless of the LMS. It is possible that only students with more sophisticated web skills are able to benefit from the learning pathways we design. As instructional designers remove more and more of our responsibility to construct these pathways ourselves, the “best practices” encourage computerized learning goals such as chunking, instant feedback, and tightly controlled pathways at the expense of discovery, integration and community.

While I would prefer, for the sake of our democratic society, a metacognitive awareness of the control exerted on us by our tools, I have to admit the temptation to follow the larger trend. We have successfully trained an entire generation not to think while using an electronic tool. We may no longer be able to expect them to do so for the sake of their education.

Related posts:

Actually teaching tolerance

There are currently discussions (a recent one at Hybrid Pedagogy comes to mind ) about being open with our students about ourselves in order to encourage tolerance, particularly of sexuality. To me, this is part of a much larger issue about values and responsibilities, and it is broadening the list of trends with which I, respectfully, disagree.

The sexuality issue connects with similar lines of “equity” that I’ve been struggling with in recent years. According to contemporary cultural norms, I have to be X to understand what it’s like to experience discrimination about being X. I receive social messages implying that whatever labels I apply to myself, or that society applies to me, should be made public to encourage tolerance (except that tolerance is now a bad word because it implies denigrating the ideas we’re supposed to be tolerant of). My own ideas are dismissed because I am what the culture now calls “privileged” — I am told I don’t understand, because my understanding is not the same as someone else’s.

Lately, people I admire try to tell me what to do and think. I am told that All Lives Matter means that Black Lives Don’t, that I can’t understand anything because I’m white, or female, or middle class, or whatever sexual orientation, or religion, or culture, that other people think I am. I was told by Gloria Steinem and Madeleine Albright that I couldn’t support Bernie Sanders because I am female and he isn’t, and that I’m betraying my sex to not like Hillary Clinton.

A year ago, I saw a sticker on an office window at my college. It was triangular and featured a rainbow design with  “Safe Space” written on it. Thinking I understood (this is a safe space to be who you are), I asked how to get one, and was told to attend a training. So I did. And during that training, I was told that as a teacher it is my job to shut down intolerance in the classroom. That if anyone says anything anti-X (gay, trans, etc) I am to indicate that is inappropriate, and that people in the room might be X and be offended. I was further told that I should say that such views won’t be allowed in my class.

I raised my hand and pointed out that I want the bigot to speak, that I want him or her in my office speaking their mind. How else could I talk to them and convince them of tolerance? I was laughed at. People thought I was joking. Instructors whom I respect and like chuckled at my comment. At the end of the session, I thanked them and refused the sticker, saying I don’t stand for these values the way they are being told to me. I bought a rainbow flag and put it on my office window.

I have always been a proponent of teaching tolerance. The question is, how do we do it? Does revealing our sexuality, or religion, or culture, to our class teach tolerance and appreciation of difference? Does shutting down diverse views, especially those we find abhorrent, correct a problem? Or does it just use our authority, and our supposed role model status, to enforce a particular view of what constitutes tolerance?

My preference is for modeling tolerance rather than “teaching” it. I refuse to shut down conversation in my classroom, because my goal is critical thinking as well as an open mind and freedom of speech. My own speech tends to be egalitarian, and I always point out that what I say is my interpretation of the historical and scholarly sources. When I speak about anyone whom mainstream culture might consider unusual, I talk about them as if they aren’t unusual at all. And as a historian, I’m interested in understanding diverse points of view, because conflicts among them create not only our history, but our perception of our history.

I didn’t realize until recently that the trends I oppose are connected (call me naïve). I have long been against trigger warnings, except for blanket ones (i.e. you will encounter disturbing ideas because college is supposed to do that). I oppose adding my “pronoun” to my professional signature, because I believe such things divide us all even more, into smaller and smaller stultifying categories. I think that safe spaces, trigger warnings, shutting down the opposition, and latter-day political correctness are all manifestations of limitations on speech and academic freedom. These ideas about equity and safety were intended to do right and be inclusive, but in practice have become exclusionary.

Until recently I’ve felt quite alone in this position, as formal manifestations of the popular viewpoint emerge, fill up my college email, and are financed by my tax dollars. This week, however, The Atlantic published this article on How Trigger Warnings Silence Religious Students. Don’t be fooled by the title – it isn’t so much about religious students as about the appreciation of all points of view, not just the current set of what is accepted. And now I read that the University of Chicago agrees, and is telling its entering freshmen there will be no trigger warnings, that they will be exposed to, and expected to engage, diverse ideas.

And for those who think I’m a nihilist, I’m not. This is not cultural relativism. I don’t believe that all points of view have equal value, or that ethics are arbitrary. Rather, refusing to disallow objectionable speech is putting ethics into the context of civil discourse, rather than promoting a set of norms that can be used to exclude people. I agree with those who say that the extremities of our current national discourse are caused, in some part, by dismissing other people’s points of view as stupid, and by liberals (myself included) being smug.  It is entirely possible that the refusal to discuss objectionable ideas has led to the increase in the frequency and volume of those ideas. If we do not value civil discourse and actual inclusivity, we undermine the most precious values of our civilization.

I can only hope that my views will be…tolerated.