Taking OER Beyond the OER Community: Part I

I can’t actually figure out how to get into the UNESCO online forums on this topic, so I suppose I’ll post here in the meantime.

I think I have a bit of a unique perspective. A couple of years ago I was the first Director of Community Outreach for the OpenCourseWare Consortium. For various reasons, I returned to work at Keene State as an instructional designer. So I went from pitching the use and production of OER to a position where I was making learning materials, and struggling with issues of incorporating OERs into classes.

Here’s the first thing I realized on getting back — we haven’t got over our crush on producers. Who is the hero in the open community — the professor that reuses materials in a class, or the Ivy League professor that shares his class with the world? Everything in the community is set up to celebrate the professor who puts his materials up, and nothing is in place to break down the stigma of reuse.

The truth is that it is ten times harder to build a class out of open materials than it is to put your syllabus (or even videos) online. To share a course, you just do what you’ve been doing for 40 years or so, and film it. I’m not sure how we got to see that as the challenging bit.

Here’s the question I have for the open community — have you ever tried to teach someone else’s course in your university’s context? Have you built a class off someone else’s syllabus, designed instruction around an open textbook? Found a way to integrate Khan Academy deep into your Ivy League curriculum?

If your institution shares, but doesn’t celebrate reuse, you don’t believe in Open Education. You just don’t. Because it is the reuse that is  the difficult part. That’s the part that requires talents that we don’t even have yet. That’s the part that requires we check our egos at the door. Reuse is the part which requires the quantum leap in practice.

The sharing part? Meh.

I’m struggling with reuse right now. I’m helping to build a course that gets students to learn basic statistical analysis in the context of Health Policy. The class is for freshmen, it’s going to be one flavor of a generally required course on Quantitative Literacy (essentially a numeracy course).

I want to bring the best pedagogy into this course. Collaboration, case studies, use of real public data to solve problems, engaging in-class activities, clear learning goals, formative assessment. Like any person who gets education at all, I’m starting by focussing on what I want the students to be able to do, not what I want them to know.

And most OCW and OER make my life harder in that respect.

I’ve talked about this OER hurdle before — For any modern educator, the make or break piece of education is not the materials my students use or the structure of assigned readings. It’s what happens in the classroom.

So while there’s some neat lecture notes at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, they are kind of useless to me, because the difficult part is thinking about how this translates into classroom activities and projects.  And since I work backward from the activity to the content, not the other way around, the chances of me working back to a lecture or presentation that doesn’t have to be 90% recontextualized is pretty slim.

So here’s your first problem with OER: most of the OER you see at conferences encourages bad learning design. It encourages what I would call a “syllabus-forward” mentality that says I will lock in my readings and lectures and then build activities around that.

Here’s your syllabus and readings! Now just think of some activities and you’re set! You know — just bolt the “doing” part onto this.

I doubt there is a competent learning theorist on the planet that would tell you to design a course that way.

So why are we doing that? I know there are exceptions — there’s some examples of great activity modules on WikiEducator and Connexions, but by and large what I see is content, content, content.

That brings me to the second point, which is why OER people do not build classes out of open materials themselves.

Think about this for a minute.  How many open textbooks out there are incorporating other open textbooks? How many Tufts lectures are incorporating Open Yale Courses materials?

I know, this seems like a wiseass point, but it’s not – because you go to any Open Education conference in the world and you will find that almost all the people there come from the production side of things.

This is insane. Can you imagine a world were the writers of say Perl or Python or Java had never actually tried to build something with Perl or Python or Java themselves? Or worse, had never used ANY scripting languages?

How useful would those languages turn out to be? Would we be surprised if the uptake of those languages was not good?

What makes languages like Perl and Python work is that the people that build the modules are the users. That guarantees that work on modules gets focussed on the pressing problems. What we’ve fallen in love with in OER, intentionally or not, is a producer-consumer model that romanticizes the producers as the rock stars and the users as the beneficiaries. And how do you know that you are a rock-star producer, and not one of the cloying masses yearning for “quality content”? Well, you know it because your material is original. That is, the culture of OER romanticizes not reuse, but production, which undermines the whole enterprise and reinforces the stigma of reuse.

In a functioning culture, the producer-consumer distinction would be broken down. You would not have press releases not about Ivy League College X putting 100 courses online, but instead about Ivy League College X using materials from College Y, or heck, materials from College Z in Uganda.  You would have a culture that held up creative reuse as a good equal to or greater than initial development. You would have funding for reuse projects that very specifically polled reusers on what the obstacles they hit were.

It’s possible to do this right. It’s already being done, in fact. I gave one of my best workshops at Keene State last week, and I did it using someone else’s materials. Stephen Brookfield does a wonderful two day seminar on Discussion as a Way of Teaching — he has presentation packets, a case study for participants, a set of slides. I emailed him and asked if I could use these materials, he said yes.

In the materials there’s stuff he has gathered from other places:  a Critical Incident Questionaire he has used sucessfully to gauge how students are reacting to the instruction, a couple response activities he has collected from other people. So he’s using other people’s battle tested classroom activities.

I used these materials and focussed on facilitating the class, choosing the two hours of material I wanted to focus on,  skipping over some sections that seemed to drag, jumping in to provide explanations or focus where the class seemed to drift, scratching a planned activity when the class seemed to tire of a similar activity.

It worked like magic. It was empowering. I felt like I was DJ-ing the works of Stephen Brookfield trying to keep people out on the dance floor, queuing the second tune up a little early, remashing the third activity with a question that was spontaneously raised in the first.

It was electric, honestly. The feedback we got back was stellar.  I came out the seminar  feeling like I was high on caffeine or coding or both. I came back and and made some notes on what I will do differently. I’m completely pumped to use these materials again.

THAT’S what using OER should feel like. It should feel a bit like magic. But until we break down the user/producer wall it won’t feel like that at all.

3 thoughts on “Taking OER Beyond the OER Community: Part I

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