Why I am Concentrating on Open TEACHING Resources

Note: this post was destroyed in the great database corruption of 2011. I’ve pulled this copy from the cached version at archive.org, where you can go if you want to see the original comments by peeps like Tom Woodward and Jared Stein.

I had a revelation this fall. A Joycean epiphany, suitable for novelization.

My wife, after 10 years of not being a school teacher, got a job teaching art at a local school. About two weeks before the start of the school year she went in to get the whole administrative run-down, and found that the previous teacher hadn’t really left any materials, curriculum, etc. And since art isn’t like writing or history, with a set textbook or district provided curriculum, she had no institutional materials either.

Which left her in a bind. While she was only teaching two days a week, she was teaching 9 classes in those two days, and on her own time, two weeks before the start of the semester, she had to plot out her quarter, matching it to basic standards and learning outcomes.

Let me let this sink in, for those used to the college environment. That’s nine classes times nine weeks — or 81 sessions of classroom instruction across nine grade levels. Just to get through the first two months of the year. (The whole year, of course, involves over 320 hours of instruction: about equal to designing a 3/3 4-credit college course load in a year).

Once again, this is not terribly unusual for an art teacher starting out. If anything, the abnormal bit may have been the fact this is only a two day job.

How did Nicole deal with it? Well, she bought a bunch of packaged curriculum books, but soon grew frustrated with them. They didn’t match the length of her classes, or the meeting frequency, or the standards that mattered. So she went online. And once there she started to tap into the huge selection of free lesson plans available and the community around them.

Here’s the mind-blowing bit for those of us in Higher Ed who are wondering how in the world to get even a small amount of reuse on the OER we are producing:

Fifty percent of her instruction has been based on internet sources: open lesson plans, handouts, discussion questions, even folding orgami diagrams. And she tells me while this may be somewhat high, she doesn’t think it is abnormal.

Think of that level of adoption. Is there anyone on your campus that uses OER for fifty percent of their instruction?

What can we, in higher ed, learn from this?

Teacher-facing, not student-facing

On the whole, most OER I’ve seen for higher education has been student facing. Even when we look at, say, MIT OCW, what we are seeing is student-facing materials. Course structure is there, but encoded in the form of a syllabus. Content is lecture notes, or the materials students see. Sample tests, etc.

This seems a subtle point, but I think it’s important. When I get professional assistance from the web — on say how to run a presentation, or how to use a new API, it is directed to me explicitly as a fellow professional. It gives me a set of steps to accomplish a task, warns me about the gotchas, holds my hand through the scary bits.

Yes, API instruction will have the bits of code as well, the output and artifacts of production. But professional resources, well done, talk TO me, not past me. They say, hey, I tried this set of steps this way on the version 2.6 installation, and if I had to do it over again, I think I would have copied kses.php first.

OER for P-12 educators does that. It’s professionals talking to professionals. OER in higher ed doesn’t, for the most part, do that. That’s due to a bunch cultural reasons, but if I had to pick just one reason why OER does not have broader adoption in higher ed, I would say it’s because in general OER does not treat the instructor as a fellow professional. It talks past the instructor to the student. If we had no extant educational system, maybe that would work. But we do have an extant educational system, and we’re supposed to be concerned about adoption of OER. And the sale for the use of OER is not the students, but the instructors.

That’s just fact.

So why are we talking past them instead of to them?

The Right Size Means Everything

Nicole needed to build up nine full courses in a small amount of time. But most people don’t need to do that. The glory of the lesson plan exchanges out there in P-12 is you don’t have to blow up your existing course to use them. You want to try something new? Find the parts of last year’s course that didn’t go so hot, get on the internet, and find new stuff to swap into those slots and try.

OCW is extremely useful for a lot of things. But when you look at the politics of pushing OCW reuse on a campus like Keene State’s the first thing you notice is it doesn’t solve a problem faculty think they have — it creates one. Most faculty will tell you much of their class works, some of it doesn’t. They are interested in solving the parts that don’t work without blowing up their whole class.

And if you want to promote OER use in this sort of context, you have to solve faculty problems, not create them.

Battle-tested, and Practical

You want to know one of my favorite things about the lesson plans my wife uses (and hacks!)?

The Prep list. Here’s an example from a claymation lesson plan:


Photocopy lesson outline and assignments for student use
Rent VHS movie-Chicken Run
VHS hooked up to classroom TV
Groups assigned
Cameras charged
Disks assigned to groups
Software orientation for production
Production Area Assigned and Set Up
Light supports for production area

My second favorite? Materials:


Chicken Run, Hatching of a Movie, by Brian Sibley
Microsoft Movie Maker
Help Topics
Claymation Handouts Work Sheet
Check List
Storyboard Worksheet (use as many copies as necessary)
Self Evaluation Worksheet
Websites below

So simple, but so important for anyone who has started a presentation to find they didn’t have the right materials, or the right software wasn’t installed in the lab. Seriously, consider this for a second — how many class sessions have gone wrong because your content was wrong? Now, how many have gone wrong because you weren’t prepared?

That’s what I mean. Practical, Battle-tested.

Good Practice Baked In

As an instructional designer I’ve spent a lot of time trying to convince people via theory and research to adopt certain classroom practices. And I’ve come to this conclusion: people don’t really care about theory and research. They say they do, but they don’t.

The reason people won’t adopt your suggested practice is not because they have a theoretical disagreement. It’s because changing what they do is harder and more risky than not changing what they do. Address issues of risk and time, and most faculty will try anything once. The theoretical discussion is only their way of saying there isn’t enough proof for me to blow up my instruction on something that may or may not be true.

In any case, here’s the neat thing about Open Teaching Resources: you can bake best practice in. If you put together a two-week team-based unit on quantitative literacy, you don’t have to spend an hour educating faculty that 5-7 people is optimal working group size, or that readiness assessment testing is crucial to solving the free rider problem. You just put the practice in the plan.

This allows instructors to learn like most professionals do — begin with good practice, and come to the theory later, as reflection on their existing practice.

I Apologize to Everyone All At Once in Advance

  • I apologize to all the P-12 people reading this who are thinking, “Well, duh.”
  • I apologize to Connexions and WikiEducator and Siyavula and all the other people that have been doing stuff related to teacher facing resources
  • I apologize to the OpenCourseWare Consortium, my much beloved former employer, which is doing amazing and necessary work, and has spent a lot of time looking at reuse issues on the course and module level (and has got a lot of student facing reuse, via third parties, etc)
  • I apologize to the people I have not named here, both for not naming you, and for whatever I’ve done

My point in writing this is not to say that this isn’t being done, in various ways, in OER endeavors. Making OER more teacher-friendly is not exactly a revolutionary concern, and I think everyone in OER is working on this issue in one way or another.

But to return to my introduction, the thing that is revolutionary to me is this:

My wife’s P-8 curriculum is fifty percent OER and she does not consider that groundbreaking in the least.

This post isn’t meant to attack any of the current OER players, but merely to ask: How is that possible? And how might I learn from that success to help transform my own institution?

I hope this bit of reflection on my own practice is helpful to people. I’d appreciate any comments.

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